June 28, 2020

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

Many years ago, hoping to more fully live into our stance as a healing, welcoming congregation, Gloria Dei launched an Anti-Racism initiative, and held a training for a group of us. I was part of the group.

I’m ashamed to admit that a lot of the information is lost to me now. The hard work and momentum of the group moved us only a little, and because of all kinds of reasons, only some of which make sense in hindsight, the effort fell to the sidelines again. I imagine the leader of that training could have predicted that outcome. People of color can tell you that this experience repeats itself over and over again in many institutions consisting of well-meaning white people.

In spite of having forgotten too much of the training, I can remember some of the painful and awkward moments of the experience. There was one particular assignment that came back to me this week. We were broken into small groups, and were assigned a position to take in a debate. The debate was going to be between the Old System of continued oppression and ignorance, and the New System, a new world order, no longer confined by systemic racism or white supremacy.

I was so relieved to be assigned to the team that was going to argue for the New System, until the debate began. I don’t remember any of our team’s arguments or positions. I think we just presumed people would want to do the right thing.

But we got trounced in the debate. I’m pretty sure everyone on the opposing side had been on their High School Debate team, and had probably gone to the State Tournament, because they were good. They had their arguments down pat. “Things have always worked this way,” they argued. “You can’t change history. Some people are simply better at organizing and leading, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The old plans are already in place, they are tested, tried, efficient, and successful, and can be tweaked when needed. We’re making improvements. The system has created incredible wealth, clear hierarchies, and prosperity for the deserving, and the vast majority of people are doing fine. It won’t help to rock the boat.”

Our side basically choked. We stumbled along with a few key messages about fairness and equality, but lost the momentum of the argument, and really never responded to any of the other team’s well-rehearsed, polished talking points. The facilitator was gentle in naming the other side as the victors in the debate. She pointed out where we had failed to anticipate their arguments, and how our off we were in our expectation that they agree that being nice and fair are admirable goals.

Later in the training, I remember wishing we could repeat the exercise, because I had a whole new approach I wanted to take. If I could have done it again, I would have begun our side of the debate with a simple phrase, “Welcome to God’s future.”

I wanted to point out that we might wish for the status quo to remain, but like it or not, God is changing the world into a new reality. And God is making us to be part of it.

If I could have started the debate over, I would have said, “Glad to have you on board! Come on, and let’s see the new chances God is giving us to be a people who welcome each other as created in the image of God, and value each person as a child of the Divine.”

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

Throughout the 10th chapter of Matthew, Jesus has been preparing his disciples to be sent into ministry. He’s given them incredible authority over unclean spirits and diseases. He’s empowered them to proclaim the gospel, to cleanse the lepers, and to announce peace, to testify to authorities. He’s even equipped them to raise the dead to life.

He’s also warned them of the trials they’ll face: persecution, rejection, shunning, and humiliation. He prepares them for animosity, for being unwelcomed, for facing fear. He tells them to anticipate a cross.

But he sends them with the promise that when they are received, those who welcome them will also be welcoming Jesus himself, and in fact be welcoming the One who sent Jesus. When the church is unleashed, when the people of God are sent out into the world to share good news, it is God’s own presence that is set free.

We’ve been struggling for the last few months to figure out how to be church when we can’t be together. And it is a struggle.

We miss seeing one another face to face. We grieve the times our children played together in the aisles. We long to catch the eyes of an old friend across the sanctuary, or to overhear the questions of a newcomer a few pews behind us. We ache for the chances to sing with each other. We know that a whole season without Sunday School or Vacation Bible School leaves a big hole in our children’s faith formation; that missed mission trips and service projects and annual dinners can never be fully replaced. We recognize that relationships are suffering.

But we also remember that in spite of all that is missing, we are still together in mission.

The followers of Jesus in Matthew 10 had never imagined a church in the way we think of it. Being a disciple meant being sent by Jesus to proclaim the reign of God and to carry out the work that Jesus did, wherever we are, wherever we go.

We may not be able to be together, but we are still being sent into the world to carry on the work of Jesus. We may not be in the building, but we are still the church, and as the church, we still have the power to welcome the world into the Reign of God. We still have power to proclaim good news to the marginalized, to feed the hungry, fight oppression, and dare we try, raise from the dead those who have been oppressed (even if their oppression has been exacerbated by our own ignorance, especially if their oppression has been due to our own complicity with white supremacy or the status quo), because we still have the power to be changed by the love of God.

Pastor Joy Moore, of Luther Seminary recently imagined God saying, “I didn’t ask you to build me a house with a zip code. I want to move with you.”

I’m reading articles hinting that life won’t go back to normal. However long it takes to endure this pandemic, the world will be undeniably changed. Whatever normal looked like in the church before, it’s going to be a long time until it feels like that again. In some ways, we know that’s very hard to hear. But in other ways, what good news that might be.

We may never again take for granted community or relationships. We may never again feel an urge to spend time away from loved ones. We may never again go for years without knowing the names of our neighbors, waiting until we’re all home for months on end to introduce ourselves. We may never again have to wait until we’re in a Zoom conversation to learn the names of people we’ve seen in church for years.

Let’s face it, “normal” had some issues. Normal allowed us to abuse the environment in such horrific ways, that climate change was inevitable. Normal endangered the habitat of wild animals, which may have caused disease to inflict a pandemic. The new situation has uncovered the disparity in health outcomes for people of color. It revealed the greater economic risks for women and people of color more often to be working in service industry jobs or other manual labor. It exposed the hatred and bigotry experienced by GLBTQ people. It reminded us that undocumented people work in the factories and processing plants we depend on for our food chain, and are likely to be underpaid, living in poverty, and uninsured. And in the midst of a pandemic, we had the time to witness the unjust use of force against people of color. We finally took the time to consider the inequity built into our criminal justice system, and the crippling effects of institutionalized systemic racism. So if we’re honest, we’d admit that “normal” wasn’t really working out for us.

But, do you ever notice that Jesus never heals people and sends them back to their old lives? Nothing is ever “normal” for them again. Jesus heals them, and tells them to sin no more. He restores them to health, and sends them away rejoicing. He makes them whole and changes their life for the better.

Thank goodness we won’t go back to normal. For God is healing and restoring us, too. God is welcoming us into a new future. God is turning the world upside down and unleashing us into a future in which people are valued for who they are.

God isn’t asking for a house with a zip code. God wants to move with us into a new future, into a new life. God wants to move us into a world in which racism and homophobia and violence and brutality and ignorance no longer have the power to divide us.

So how do we get started? How can we welcome people when we can’t even gather in our church building? On any other summer, this would be the point in the sermon where I would remind you that it’s time to sign up to distribute water to our guests who use our parking lot for the state fair. But not this summer:  no state fair, no parking, no plastic bottles to collect or distribute or recycle.

So how do we welcome others and offer a cup of cold water to the little ones in these strange new times? I’m caught with the phrase Jesus keeps using, “in the name of.” Those who welcome a prophet “in the name of a prophet,” or a righteous person “in the name of a righteous person,” or “in the name of a disciple.”

I keep wondering if he means that we should welcome and care for people because of who they really are, rather than who we expect or want them to be. How might I learn to listen to the person I encounter, in their own name, rather than in my impression, or my stereotype of them?

How might I recognize the unique gifts that the person who is transgender, or asexual or non-binary, is able to bring, unless I welcome them as they understand themselves? How do I uphold the lives of black people, indigenous people, or people of color, unless I affirm that their lives matter? That they are fully and beautifully created in the image of God, and show me a more complete picture of God than I can find in my own experience?

In the future into which Jesus is welcoming us, prophets are welcomed because they are prophets. Righteous persons are received in the name of a righteous person, in the name of their own story and perspective. People are valued not in spite of their skin color or sexual identity, but because their unique skin color, their specific circumstances, and their individual story is important and good and valid and true.

People are allowed to ask us to use the pronouns they want us to use not because that matches our expectation or experience, but because they have the right to their own perception of themselves, and probably know themselves better than we do.

And then this last little part: when we welcome another, we will “receive the reward of the righteous.” What’s the reward? I think it must be one of those natural consequences of recognizing the humanity in my neighbor, It pays off in experiencing a real relationship with them. The reward is built into the joy of having been opened to receive the gifts the other brings, fostered by the vulnerability of dropping my pretenses and fears, to hear the truth in another’s story, to accept the pain and the sorrow, the joy and the hope that the other shares.

I think the reward is greatest when I had to shed the weight of my own prejudice, leave behind my own pre-conceptions and assumptions to honestly receive what my neighbor had to offer. For when I’ve admitted that I need to change I make room for God to move me into the future.

Entering into the goodness of the in-breaking of God’s reign where each person is valued and named, known and cherished, may be the greatest reward imaginable. Entering that future may feel like the most joyous victory, may taste like the sweetest, most refreshing cup of cold water ever shared. Entering that new life may be the welcome home we’ve been craving our whole lives.

Thanks be to God.