Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-6, Galatians 3:26-28, 1 John 4 (excerpts)
Back at the start of the pandemic, I began worshipping online with Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC. Being around people feeds my soul, and when in person connection needed to pause, I had to find new ways to fill my cup and nourish my soul. And as I worshiped with them online, I discovered that Foundry begins their worship exactly the same way every week. They have the usual welcome but then, someone always makes this statement:
We welcome you here today, “no matter where you come from, what you believe or don’t, no matter what you feel or don’t feel, no matter your immigration status, no matter whom you love, you are welcome to come just as you are to be met by our God who knows you by name.”
And y’all, I swear, I cry almost every time I hear them say that. Hearing those words brought home just how important clear and intentional statements are. Direct expression of values like Foundry’s welcome and our inclusivity statement matter and make a difference.
Our inclusivity statement, which is on the front page of our website, reads: “Hanscom Park United Methodist Church strives to be a place where everyone is welcome and everyone knows it. This welcome affirms all people to come and join God’s community as they are. You are welcome in this congregation regardless of Race, Nationality, Age, Gender, Gender Identity, Marital Status, Sexual Orientation, Physical Ability, Mental Ability, Economic Class, or Educational Experience.” Now, you might be thinking, as I used to think about statements like that, come on, its us, everyone knows that we are a welcoming, warm, and inclusive church. And we might know, and even a lot of people might know, but everyone does not know. How many times has a single person, a queer person, a person of color, walked into a smiling church with a generic we welcome everyone, only to discover that in practice not all people are welcome. God calls us to embrace all people, and thoughtful, intentional statements backed up by how we live and do ministry, matter. God calls us to Embrace All People and to be clear about it, because truly embracing all people keeps us in alignment with Gods love and because it is perilously easy to block and exclude.
Aligning with God’s love:
Ephesians, “Accept each other with love and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit.” The letters of the New Testament, several of them, lift up our interconnected nature. We are one. Like a mosaic, we are individual pieces that retain our individuality while making up a greater whole. Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize it or not, we are one and we are all connected. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…the eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you! And the head cannot say to the feet, I don’t need you…parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” When we exclude, we don’t just harm others, we harm ourselves. We miss out and our lives are lacking when people are missing from the body of Christ. In 1 John 4, we heard, “Dear friends, if God loves us this way, we also ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.” And y’all, I love this passage. That phrase, “his love is made perfect in us” could also be translated, “God’s love is brought to completion in us,” or “God’s love reaches its aim in us.” Think about God’s love as an arrow. The target is not just us. God pours out love upon creation. But that isn’t the endgame. Love hits its mark when we take God’s love and pour it out to others. When we embrace all people in word and deed we fulfill the greatest commandment, we love our neighbor as ourself, and we help the arrow of God’s love find its mark.
It is perilously easy to block and exclude:
You know, most churches or groups try to leave people out. I mean, some for sure do, but even for those that don’t mean to exclude, it just happens so easily.
Back when I lived in Dallas, my friends and I marched downtown for workers’ rights. A new high end apartment developer was not giving water breaks to or paying its construction workers. So a group called Justice For Our Neighbors organized a march that ended at the gated entrance to the new development. One of my friends at the event has cerebral palsy and is in a motorized wheelchair. The event planners made sure their route followed the city sidewalks but what I discovered was that “presence of sidewalk” did not equal “accessible sidewalk.” Multiple times we came to a broken, heaved bit of sidewalk that I found annoying but stopped my friend in his tracks. Several times it was easier for him to off-road on the grass than use the sidewalk. And at one intersection, he literally had to risk tipping over to keep going because there was no way forward that wasn’t curbed. That day was a revelation for me, and he’s just like, yup, this is my life. Were the event planners maliciously trying to exclude folks with different mobility? Absolutely not. We just don’t often think about how people with different bodies from ours, or who speak a different language from ours, or who have different colored skin than ours experience and go through the world. We have a natural default, and that default is how we experience the world. It takes effort, it takes intentionality, to think about how other people experience and go through the world. And if we recognize that how we have been doing things has been unintentionally blocking and excluding some people from community, it takes humility and grace for us to make changes or modifications to be welcoming, loving, and inclusive.
God calls us to embrace all people and, thanks be to God, we as a church strive to live that idea in word and deed. We strive to live into that calling and have it shape how we do church. We move beyond words when we do a multi-year study on accessibility and then implement a remodeling plan so we can better embrace people of all physical abilities. We move beyond words when y’all feel comfortable drawing out attention to and suggesting even small things that could make worship more engaging and connective. We move beyond words when we become a reconciling church and serve as a prophetic witness amidst the current chaos in our denomination. We move beyond words when we acknowledge that we are not perfect, that we will make mistakes, that we will stick our foot in our mouth at some point when it comes to ability or disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, race, or culture, but we will keep trying, we will keep striving to be the church God calls us to be. God calls us to embrace all people. This week may each of us strive to live into that calling. May we consider the world through someone else’s experience and perspective. May we love our neighbor whatever they look like, whatever language they may speak, whoever they love, whoever they may be. May we, embrace all people. Amen.
Rev. Stefanie Hayes