Outside – In

Over the past eight months, I have learned a lot about the people of Immanuel UMC.  I had heard you were friendly and welcoming, hospitable and that this was a caring church, but those are really just words until you see them lived out in people’s lives.  And having a fresh set of eyes – an outsiders eyes – I want to share just a few things I’ve learned. I’ve learned that you are quick to show up at the bedside of a friend and have often have visited before either of us pastors hear someone is in the hospital or is sick. I’ve discovered the joy filled welcome that so many greeters offer to those who walk in the doors on Sunday mornings. I see the care that is taken to make this a hospitable and welcoming place – from the pots of coffee that are prepared to the flexibility to adapt and use this space differently, like you did with the nursery and library moves. On the sign outside our building, it says “All Welcome!”  and you really want everyone to feel welcome here.   But I must share that I also come as an outsider that looks and talks a whole lot like many of you do here in the church…. And on the surface, whether we intend for it to or not, that is itself a barrier for people who may not look or speak like the majority of those in this room. Being a part of this church, I can now see and name the multitude of ways we are diverse.  We have a wide range of ages – from four week old babies to 104 year olds!  We are people who are wealthy and who are struggling financially.  We are healthy and we are in need of healing.  Some of us have been educated by the streets and some of us have taught in universities.  We vote republican and we vote democrat.  And perhaps the most striking dichotomy of all:  Some of us are Hawkeyes and some of us are Cyclones and some of us are Panthers and some of us don’t fit into any of those categories, but we still somehow are able to worship together 😉 We have made room in this place for all of this difference. God is good!   Yet, there are still people missing from our midst. There are still people in this neighborhood and in this larger community who do not know that they would be welcome here. Even inside this caring, loving community, there are still people who feel like they simply don’t quite belong. Our sign outside might say, “All Welcome…” but do we truly live that out with every fiber of our being?     In our gospel reading for this morning, the question of who belongs is lifted up. One afternoon, Jesus is hanging out with some of his disciples… who were all Jewish, both ethnically and religiously.  In other words, they would have looked and talked the same. Philip and Andrew were out and about in the community when they encountered some Greeks who were in town for the festival.  And these Greeks approached the pair and asked if they might see Jesus. What is interesting is that these are the same words that were used when Philip and Andrew first met Jesus… He asked them to “come and see.”  So, these Greeks want to do more than just meet Jesus – they want to become followers OF Jesus. I can imagine Philip and Andrew turned to each other and started whispering. “They want to see Jesus?” “But they are Greek!” “Um…. Let’s go ask first…”   What was the big deal? First of all, in the gospel of John, the disciples understood themselves to be part of a Jewish movement. They were traveling the countryside, preaching good news to the poor, but most of those people looked remarkably like them.  Yes, there had been that one encounter with a Samaritan woman, but for the most part, this was a Jewish movement for Jewish people. This is only the second time in John’s gospel that Jesus encounters gentiles, people outside the Jewish community. Second, I have always found the disciples to be a bit thick.  It takes them a little longer to catch on than we would like.  They tried to keep the children from Jesus, but he welcomed them.  They watched as he embraced sinners and prostitutes and outcasts. Yes, the ethnicity of these Greeks set them apart from Jesus’ disciples.  At a minimum, their accents would have distinguished them.  But maybe they dressed different and had a lighter hair and fairer skin.  But Jesus had shown again and again that all sorts of people were welcome.   Can you picture it? They walk up to Jesus, with the Greeks standing not too far behind them and they ask: “Hey Jesus,  do you want to see those people, or should we send them away?” We want Jesus to answer with something like –“ Sure!  Have them come over!”   or “You guys just don’t get it… of COURSE I want to see them.” But he doesn’t. Jesus instead, for all to hear, starts talking about how you have to die to bear fruit. That he is going to give up his life and anyone who wants to follow him must give up theirs as well.   When we think of it in the context of this diversity, Jesus’ words make a bit more sense.  Standing before him are Andrew and Philip, the first Jewish disciples… and behind them are those who might become the first Greek disciples. Will they be able to get along? Will they be able to set aside their differences to follow him? Or will their pasts get in the way of the future God has planned for our salvation?   This parable of sorts that Jesus offers is all about their identity.  They can cling to their heritage and their labels, but if they do so they will always remain strangers.  They will remain in their differences and never be lifted up with Christ. But if they let go of their worldly identity… their distinctions as Jews and Greeks… then they will come to know true life in the community of Jesus Christ. Jesus is asking them, and us, to declare our allegiance.  Jesus invites us to let go of our labels – Jew or Greek, male or female, young or old and to take on a new identity as the servant of Christ… to identify ourselves not by any characteristic of this world, but to claim our identity in Jesus’ death and resurrection.   I am white.  I am a female.  I am American.  I am United Methodist. But first and foremost and more important than any of those other labels, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. And the question raised by this parable is what kind of sacrifices do we need to make… what do we need to risk… in order for the world to know that is the core of our identity?   Whether we want it to or not, all of those other identifying characteristics can get in the way of the world knowing the love of God in Jesus Christ. The color of our skin can be a barrier. The way we talk can be a barrier. Our nationality can be a barrier. And if we want others to see Jesus in us… If we want others to know and follow him who died to save us all… then it is up to us to cross whatever barriers might exist and be present with people where they are.   Recently, Samsung put together an ad that describes the kind of hospitality and love that helps someone who feels like they are on the outside experience what it might like to be in. Muhareem is deaf and his primary language is sign language.  Yet as he encounters neighbors and strangers in the world, they don’t speak his language. But what if they did? What if a whole neighborhood decided to cross a barrier and meet Muhareem where he is?   What sacrifices can we make? What risks can we take? What barriers can we cross to help others see Jesus? God loves all sorts of people who live outside of these four walls.  Single dads.  Drug addicts.  The homebound elderly.  Children who are competing for first place in a contest. Folks who partied too much last night. So the question I leave us with today is what might Jesus be asking us to do to cross a barrier and share the love of Christ with them today? What might we, as a church, let go of, so that the world might know Jesus?

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