Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
This is the third installment in my sermon series Space, Practice, Vision, in which we test the terms of our draft new mission statement: Old First is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This week: a community offering a space of unconditional welcome.
The first chapter of the Book of Genesis sings the song of God making space, space within the chaos of the ancient deep. Great space, safe space, for the tender flourishing of life. Space under the lofty ceiling of the firmament. Space between the waters for dry land to appear. Space for birds above and creeping things below. God began this work by God’s Spirit moving over the face of the primeval deep, the wind of God upon the waters.
God did something similar in the Exodus. The exodus of the Israelites through the Red Sea recapitulates Genesis. When Moses stretched out his hand, the wind of God blew over the waters and divided the sea to make dry land, between the walls of water on their right hand and their left. It was a long, thin space towards their escape. It was a great long hallway into freedom.
But the welcome in this space was not unconditional. The welcome for the Israelites was a trap for the Egyptians and the death of them. This is taken by Exodus as just and right, that life for one group means death for another, that some are in and some are out, and the walls of God’s design are there to protect us from our evil enemies.
Unconditional welcome is not natural. Animals don’t practice it, no nation practices it, even when it’s our ideal. Human communities don’t practice it. Our welcoming each other naturally is conditional. We welcome you if you do not threaten us and our young, if you do not threaten our comfort or our treasure, nor our allies with whom we have allegiances. In the realm of religion, we welcome you if you fit our holiness code (not that we ourselves ever measure up to it). Right now a group in the Reformed Church is working to keep our churches unwelcoming to Christians who are gay or lesbian.
What else is new. It’s the way of the world, but it’s not the kingdom of heaven. The death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the end of all exclusion, all separation, all distinction. His royal welcome is so lavish and total and unconditional that the church hardly believes it and rarely practices it. But the space of unconditional welcome is the earthly image of the vision of the kingdom of heaven.
Now let me tell you a story. Sixteen years ago yesterday, at the Flatbush church, I preached my candidating sermon to become your pastor. The search committee was there to hear me, including Lindsay, Peter, Jane, and Cecilia. It was the Sunday right after 9/11. I mention in passing that the lectionary texts that Sunday were miraculously relevant to the devastation of the World Trade Center.
That Friday we had driven here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we drove because all the flights were grounded. Rick Stazesky was driving, Melody up front, and me in the back seat working on my sermon. From the Tappan Zee Bridge we got our first sight of the smoke. Soon we saw fighter jets patrolling overhead and then military vehicles on the Triboro Bridge, and I broke down sobbing in the back. From the BQE you couldn’t take your eyes off the hideous column of smoke.
Rick drove us into Park Slope, and we saw our first good thing. The front doors of this church were open. People were sitting on the stoop and in the doorways and the narthex, with lighted candles all around. People were sitting in the sanctuary, some of them in groups. On the walls long sheets of newsprint were hanging and people had written their prayers on them. The prayers were from all different religions and some things written were against religion. No problem—the welcome was unconditional.
We learned that the sanctuary had been open all week. We learned that very soon after the airplanes hit, while the debris from the burning was raining down on Brooklyn, someone from this congregation had opened up the doors and started making quiet music. In the shadow of the terror, people came in, seeking refuge, seeking sanctuary, and here was sanctuary. Someone hung up the prayer sheets.
I’m not sure who it was, but it wasn’t the pastor, you didn’t have one then. The interim pastor was stuck out in New Jersey. Someone of the congregation had the vision of a space of unconditional welcome. And on that Friday, when Melody and I saw what we saw, we knew we wanted to come here.
Do you know that what you did that week changed the church’s reputation in the community? Before that we were regarded as the mighty fortress, deservedly or not. Did you know that only the center of the narthex was open, and the outer doors at either end, below the steeple and the porte-cochere, were sealed shut and never opened because both ends of the narthex were closed off for storage? That hallway there was also full of storage and cabinets that blocked the doors to the alley. A mighty fortress.
Since then we’ve gradually opened things up to make the space more welcoming. Decluttering, cleaning, opening windows, rebuilding windows, opening doors, removing pews, making room, making space. It is true and paradoxical that in such a great big building it takes constant work to offer space.
Just as in your community of Jesus it takes constant work to keep offering emotional, social, and spiritual space, constant re-imagining the vision. It is true and not paradoxical that in order to make this community a space of welcome you have to keep doing your own personal inner decluttering. Making room and space within yourself. Which brings us to our gospel lesson from Matthew 18.
The parable of the king and the two slaves has a comic ending. Melody says to think of the king as Tony Soprano and the first slave as one of his capos who owes him money. Tony lets him. Then Tony finds out the capo he let off easy won’t let off an underling for far less dough, and Tony takes that as disrespect. So he has the capo tortured, to teach him some respect.
The point is that you forgive the sins of other people against you if only out of respect for God. If you don’t forgive other people, you are disrespecting God. The comic point of Jesus here is that you forgive the sins of others finally not because you yourself are such a saint, but because you fear God! Or at least show some respect for God and what God has done for you! Who do you think you are, not to forgive? Hasn’t God forgiven you seventy-seven times?
Think of the practice of forgiving sins as your internal decluttering. You make yourself free of that thing they did you, and that insult is no obstacle, and this unfairness is no longer in the way. You just don’t want that on you any more, what they did to you.
Now if what they did to you was hurtful injury, and the damage remains and the pain keeps coming back, you’re going to have to forgive them for the same sin every day for years. If they can’t change, you make space between you and even disconnect from them altogether in order to be able to forgive them. Otherwise you’ll be so busy having to forgive their every new sin that you won’t have space in your life to welcome other people who really need you.
The practice of welcoming is taught by the Epistle to the Romans. St. Paul tells the community of Jesus to offer room within it for people who practice their religion with opposing practices. If you abstain, you abstain to the Lord. If you eat, you eat to the Lord. Here too it’s a matter of respect to the Lord.
And if the other person’s religious practice is hurtful or racist or homophobic, then you invoke last week’s section of Matthew 18, when Jesus called us to try reconciliation first, and if that doesn’t work, to bring it to the church. You take it to Tony Soprano. Which is why we have the Board of Elders, our collective mob boss, for spiritual muscle and respect. It’s hard, it’s hard to do both, to have a community which is a real community and also to offer unconditional welcome. It isn’t natural, which may be why more churches don’t do it, but the vision is worth keeping ever before us, because it’s the vision of the kingdom of heaven.
Here’s how we’re going to keep it before us: with a symbol and a story. The great big symbol is our sanctuary, a living symbol, an active symbol that actually is what it symbolizes. You are restoring it for mission, to give back to the public community its great, safe space of unconditional welcome. It is for you and for your worship, but no less is it for people who are not you, but who are God’s.
And the story is what you did here sixteen years ago, before I came. You need to tell that story every year to be reminded of the mission that God has given you. You need to tell that story as a love story, the tale of how someone saw how to express the love of God for all the people of the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.