Monday, February 9, 2009

The Inclusive Church

(James 2:1-13, Romans 1:8-17 and Luke 10:29-37)

Ministry has many faces, both literally and figuratively. Literally, in the fact that all ministers have a different face. Figuratively, in the fact that ministry itself looks different all the time. This past week, I was involved in a ministry that I had never been involved in before. It was a seminar for new pastors to discuss the ups and downs of starting in the local church. We discussed the pastor’s perspective, the congregation’s perspective, and the cabinet’s (who matches pastor with congregation) perspective. I am so happy to say that I, who have already been in ministry for 3 ½ years, was one of the most experienced pastors there, expect for those who were leading the conference.

I’m so happy because becoming a minister has been the most challenging experience of my life, and the most worthwhile. Learning how to preach, how to administer to the affairs of the church, and how to work with so many different people has been a continual learning experience. What made it even more difficult for me was the fact that I was a woman and young. I didn’t and still don’t fit the traditional image of a pastor. Research shows that the majority of congregations prefer a white, married male with two kids. In this regard, the only thing I had going for me coming in was being white. I will always remember one interview when someone from the congregation said to me, “You are 28 years old. What could you possibly teach me?”

Despite this comment (which none of you made), I want to thank you all because you have given me a chance. Not only did I not fit the traditional image of pastor, but I was also new at all this. I had and still have so much to learn. It was your openness to me as a person, your understanding, and your support that helped me to mature and become the minister I am today – which is far from perfect, but I think I am doing a pretty good job at spreading love, helping us all to worship God, and keeping the church on a positive path.

What broke my heart at this event that I went to was that many of the new pastors in other UMC’s right around us have not been given the chance by their congregations to minister with their God given gifts and to grow in their professional aptitude like I have.

One such pastor, whom I will refer to as Gertrude, has had a terrible time in her first year of ministry, and this job is hard enough without people intentionally making it harder for you. Since she arrived in July, more than 20 people have left the church, and several of the key leaders in the church have resigned from their positions. Gertrude holds regular office hours as the church requests, but no one comes to see her. No one even calls Gertrude to see how she is adjusting, and she is a 50 year old woman, who had to leave her home and husband in Queens to take this position, not 30 miles from where we sit this morning. Gertrude has made great sacrifices to serve the Lord and the Church; meanwhile she is being treated like an outsider for no good reason. I spent time with this woman and heard her speak and pray, and she has a beautiful spirit and is passionate in her love for God and all people. She definitely has something to offer, but very few people are giving her a chance. Some members in the congregation actually wrote a letter to the DS because they didn’t approve of her saying “Hallelujah” during her sermon. And do you know why she is having so much trouble? It’s because she’s black.

None of us likes to think of ourselves as prejudiced or racist. I know I don’t. But most of us still do judge people based on the way they look. Prejudice is more than just an individual’s opinion about someone without knowing them. Prejudice is ingrained into our entire society’s way of thinking. We have stereotypes in our minds of what people will be like just because of their outward appearance. Men are expected to be competent and strong. Women are expected to be nurturing and responsible. The old are expected to be wise. The young spirited, but reckless and confused. Thin people are thought to be healthy. Overweight people thought to be lazy. People from other countries are viewed as foreign and not like us, when the truth could be that we have more in common with immigrants to this country than our next door neighbors. These are ideas we have been taught that are not necessarily true, and that we might not even realize condition our minds. We have to question these unexamined, inherited thoughts because they distort our perspectives, and then we react to people unfairly. We don’t give people a chance to be themselves.

Has anyone ever judged you without getting to know you? I’m sure you’ve felt that sometime before. It’s de humanizing; it’s unfair, and it’s not Christian.

Jesus ministry was all about breaking down the barriers and cutting across the boundaries that divide people. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus lets us know his feelings about prejudice. When a Jewish man is robbed and beaten while going from Jerusalem to Jericho, those who are expected to help him don’t. The Jewish priest walks by on the other side of the road, and so does the Levite, who would be a respected Jewish layperson. The one who comes over to help is a person that Jews looked down on, a person that Jews were not supposed to associate with, a Samaritan. The Samaritan defies the false boundaries that have been set up between him and another person by bandaging the wounds of the beaten man, taking him to an inn, and paying for his stay there. The Samaritan was not expected to help the Jew. They were different kinds, but in this parable, Jesus shows that when it comes to loving one another and helping one another, there are no boundaries. Each of us is required by God to there for one another.

The Church is called to be a place of diversity, where all people regardless of disability, age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, intelligence, appearance are accepted and loved for being the unique child of God that they are. I’ve brought to you this issue that many pastors are facing now because of this conference I was at and because of the terrible hurt that is being done to good people without good reason, but this is also an issue within the laity of congregations and an issue wherever you go where diversity has become problematic instead of celebrated.

If anywhere in the world, the Church should embrace all people. We should be the one place that truly reflects and celebrates all of God’s children, but I’m sure many of you remember that just a few years ago, a man who was a homosexual was denied membership into a church. I am proud to say that our UMC motto is “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” If you are too, then we cannot allow discrimination to continue.

I know we aren’t experiencing these sorts of problems in this church today. But just down the road, a wonderful minister is suffering because her congregation is not embracing diversity and the gifts she has to offer. I’m preaching on this today because I want us to be prepared for whomever might walk through our doors. Clergy or laity. That they will be given a chance and we will not judge them by their appearance or their accent.

For those of you who aren’t aware, February is black history month, and this Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, whose first goal was to stop lynching. The NAACP has made a tremendous impact in our society so that African Americans would be given the respect and the rights they deserve. The Church is also called to be a place where all people find sanctuary and receive the respect they deserve as brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In Romans 16, Paul says, “I have complete confidence in the gospel ; it is God’s power to save all who believe.” Over and over again in the Scriptures, God’s power to redeem the world is connected to our belief. It’s that partnership between us and God that I have been talking about the last few weeks. Somehow, it is our belief that helps to unlock God’s power.

This is true of an individual’s power as well. Somehow, it is your belief in me that helps to unlock my power, that helps me to be empowered as a person. It is my belief in you that helps you to be empowered as a person so that you can live up to your full potential. It is our belief in our children that helps to empower them to grow and mature and be the best person they can be. So at least in part, we are all responsible for each other’s successes and failures. And really all we have to do from the beginning is give each other the benefit of the doubt and believe in each other.

The face of ministry is changing. More than half of the new pastors in our conference are black, Korean or Latino. And so are many of the people who live in and around this community. I thank you for accepting me and believing in me when I first arrived here. I believe in all of you too, no matter how you are different from me. The invitation for us today is to believe in all people, especially those who come to us through Christ, and to embrace diversity that all might find with us the opportunity to live fully as God is calling them to live.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. May we be a congregation that helps to change that.

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