Today’s scripture texts are about who’s included and who’s excluded in our communities. It is God’s will is to specifically include those that society excludes. In our Old Testament we hear about the inclusion of foreigners, which would have shocked the Israelites of that day because they thought that “God’s chosen people” was a narrowly defined ethnic group. Jesus raises the stakes at offending cultural expectations by including not just the foreigners who look and sound and act like us, but God includes a foreign woman who breaks that culture submissive expectation of women. God includes foreigners who break Jewish religious dietary laws. We are learning today that the inclusion asked of us is not contingent on our cultural comfort.
The Lutheran Church in southern California is more racially diverse according to statistics than the majority of Lutherans across the US. But a local pastor once publically asked “Are we as inclusive as we think? Or are there strings attached to our diversity? Do we Lutherans in LA behave in a way that says: ‘You can be any color of the rainbow and be Lutheran… as long as you’re middle class?’” As long as you have enough money to help us pay for the high quality music we Lutherans like, as long as you have enough money to help us pay for the full time, professionally educated pastor we like, as long as you have enough education and professional experience and free time (because you are not working 2 minimum wage jobs as single parent) to dependably volunteer along side us on technical projects or go on church outings or actively offer opinions in Bible study discussions? Can you be poor and be Lutheran? Can you be undereducated and be Lutheran? Are there cultural strings attached to Lutheran inclusion?
God asks of us in today’s text for a radical inclusion that can push on us and make us uncomfortable.
I actually think all of you do a very good job at loving just about any person that wanders into this little church. I’m very proud of all of you for how well you welcome. There are quite a few people of struggling economic circumstance that feel spiritually at home here. People don’t come for handouts, but because this is a welcoming place where anyone can eat and chat like friends. This is a place where God’s love in communion is given out freely and unconditionally to all who want it. This is a place where all prayers are lifted up to God. This is a place where folks who sing off-key like me sing to God’s glory along side up-and-coming opera singers.
When we were in the midst of having our property repeatedly vandalized, I wrote a newsletter article that asked the question: “Why does Lutheran Church of The Master welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and self-identified queer folks?” The answer I gave was: “Because God loves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and self-identified queer folks. In his ministry, Christ went to the hurting… stayed with and ate along side the neglected… loved those excluded by society and the religious elite of His time. Many LGBTQ people have felt excluded by the Church from God’s love, excluded from being called brothers and sisters, excluded from being seen and being able to see themselves as God’s beloved people. Lutheran Church of The Master wants to follow Christ’s lead and intentionally, especially, welcome those who have been excluded.” When we do this specific and intentional welcoming ministry we are fulfilling God’s calling in today’s Scripture readings to welcome in the face of cultural prejudice.
Recently, God has given our church another group to love. When we started developing our strategic plan for growing the church, we identified a strength of ours as being welcoming. We are good at being hospitable and making people feel like they have a place where they belong and are appreciated in this big, crazy, lonely LA of ours. And not just LGBTQ people or UCLA students, but we are generally welcoming to most people, rich or poor. Whether you’re 5, 25 or 75 years old… whether your from Tehran or Cambridge or Des Moines or even Orange County… you will generally find yourself liked by the people of LCM.
Given our strength at welcoming, we said that to grow we will focus on intentionally welcoming new groups every so often. We’ll figure out, put in the energy into intentionally welcoming 20 & 30 year olds. Then maybe UCLA students. Then maybe veterans. When we get good at welcoming one group and have incorporated them into the community, we will then figure out who to intentionally welcome next.
The vision is that LCM would eventually be a place where multiple circles of friendship and support exist. We’d be a place where people feel welcomed to move between various circles, indulging in and learning from and celebrating different personalities and perspectives and cultures. When people meet together outside of church to talk for fun or call each other up for support that is the sign that we have friendships being made here. When people in different places in life get together outside of church, a 28 year old with a child has lunch with a retired 72 year old, a person at the church for 35 years is invited to the baby shower of someone at the church a year, that’s the indication that we have incorporated new folks into the church.
A church that only has one circle of important insiders that make all the decision and runs the show at the exclusion of others will always be a small church of 25-40 people. A church that only has one circle of important insiders is a church that can’t live out today’s scriptural call to radically welcome. We aren’t being God’s radically welcoming church if the church’s decision makers are only social with the decision makers, and the UCLA students only socialize with the UCLA students, and LGBTQ folks only talk to their LGBTQ people, and Persians only hang out with Persians. We envision a ministry at Lutheran Church of The Master that impacts more than 25-40 people. We see ourselves as capable of being a larger church because we are so welcoming.
God apparently believed in our capacity to be welcoming, because God gave us a group of people to love: Persians. We did not intentionally strategize around or aim at or even become especially competent at welcoming the Persian community, and yet God has gifted us so many Persians. When Tani and Arash and Hassan and Danial and Yalda and Fariba came, we were just busy being the welcoming people we always are… without us even being fully aware of what God was up to in our midst. Our early Persian members worked along side us, and all of us worked under God’s loving guidance, and a beautiful ministry blossomed in this place. It is a ministry that lives out today’s Scriptural call of radically welcoming the one who is beautifully different from us.
Today’s Old Testament lesson says: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer…” This was read today for you, God’s beautiful Persian people at LCM. God is talking to you. God has made you a gift to this, His house of prayer. Thank you for making this an even more welcoming place.
And it is not just Persians, but there are so many people from so many places here. German speakers, and people from Indonesian and China, people of Jewish backgrounds, and dare I say even a Romanian or two. God has made you a welcoming people and has put you to His good work of radically and diversely welcoming God’s many people of many colors and many languages.
But lest I leave you all puffed up with self-congratulation, I do want you to see the continued challenge in today’s reading. It is easy to welcome me. I’m a foreigner. I was born in communist Romania. I came to the U.S. as a political refuge. I grew up in a poor immigrant home. I have a weird name but for the most part it is easy to welcome me because I sound like you, act like you, and for the most part look like Americans. (Romanians come a little shorter and hairier.) It’s always been easy for me to fit in with Americans. But not so for my mother. Because of her accent my mom has had to contend with the assumption that she is stupid. And being surprised at her intelligence is not taken as a compliment. She is hard working and has carved out an economic stability for herself and her son by putting in over 25 years of night shifts. Often 12 hours long and often 6 days a week. But because she has a foreigner’s accent she is not congratulated and admired for pulling herself up by her bootstraps, but as she has been promoted throughout her career she has been made to feel like an upstart, a job stealer, someone who doesn’t know the place America graciously gives her at the bottom.
It is easy to welcome me, but can you welcome my mom? My mom will never sound like you. My mom won’t participate in bible study discussions or tolerate waiting for the approval of an inner circle of decision makers to accept her before she can be helpful or generous. It is easy to welcome me, but can you welcome my mom? Can you welcome a foreigner woman that just won’t confine herself to the poor and lowly place the culture tells her to accept? Jesus welcomed that woman. Can you be welcoming and inclusive without making the foreigner, the stranger, the newcomer to our church conform to what makes you culturally comfortable?
Lutheran Church of The Master, I believe you can, both in your personal life and at church. I’ve seen you do it many times. Let’s keep up the good ministry of welcoming that God gave us and keep expanding to welcome another and another and another.
May you be blessed hear this sermon as I have in preaching it. Amen.