Reaching Out

Rev. Marilyn Washburn

[]Last week we received new members to strengthen the body of Christ here at Grace. Today we celebrate with Jesus at his table as he feeds and nourishes us from his body. And next week we will celebrate as we come together on Rally Day to celebrate the return of the children to Sunday School and the fullness of the body of Christ in this church.

As I think about our Scriptures for this morning, I think about the ways in which we are called into the body of Christ. What are we called to do and to be? These passages make us very aware that a large part of Jesus' ministry involved reaching out to strangers, to those who were different, reaching out in many different ways. Today's Gospel lesson, one of my favorite, is the story of the Syrophonecian woman. Picture it. Jesus is tired, he has moved out of Israel and into Tyre, a foreign land. He's attempting to take some rest and be away from the crowds, to escape their demands and find a retreat in an out-of-the-way place, but only for a moment. Along comes a pushy woman who interrupts his privacy by pleading for help with her stricken daughter. But Jesus says, "You're not one of us, you're a foreigner, you're a Gentile." And his instinct is to confront her with the reality that his mission is to come to the Jews, and that's the divine intention. But she won't give up.

That wonderful comment, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table," is a powerful statement. For anyone who has a little one and a dog, you know you don't have to clean up underneath the highchair because the dog will be there first. This woman knows that there is room even for her, and she is persistent. Her faith, beyond her own upbringing, taught her somehow to trust this man as being special and not be discouraged by the way he was treating her. So she reminds Jesus of that. I like to think of it as an 'aha' experience. He is broadened in that moment to realize that all of God's people are there to receive something from him…faith, hope, and healing. Everyone can receive from him. So she gets the healing of her daughter. He responded with that positive gesture of reaching out to someone who was different. And then he moves on, of course, to touch the ears of the deaf man to help him to hear and speak more plainly and clearly. He too was a foreigner, not a Jew. And so we have here the broadening of the ministry of Jesus.

That woman's pushiness reminds us, the church, that we have a clear mandate for our mission beyond these doors. It is not just to bring people inside the church, but to help them to go outside the church and do what needs to be done. And James's epistle is clear on that. So many times we don't always accept people who are different. I love that part where Jesus talks about how often we bow down to the wealthy and the ones who are dressed finely and we want to push aside those who are not. How often we strike out against those who are different and want to embrace those who are like us. But James is reminding us that we are called to reach out to all regardless of wealth, skin color, religion, or gender. Everyone is welcome in the church of Jesus Christ, and everyone has needs to be addressed, and everyone is called to help meet those needs.

I have some stories that I remember from my childhood. It's interesting the way certain things stand out. From my very early day (and I don't remember much about this), but I do remember my mother telling me about a family that came to church one Sunday. Our church was in Alexandria, Virginia, a nice downtown church in the '50s, but it was all white and middle class. One time a family came to church who were not dressed the way the rest of the church members were. They clearly did not have much money. The man had on blue jeans, and in the 1950s, you did not wear blue jeans to church. The woman had on a faded dress, clearly well worn. And the children were poorly dressed as well…clean, but not well dressed. And people were afraid to talk to them. Mother said that she remembers people making a wide path walking around them. If they did say anything to this family, they didn't reach out to shake their hands and greet them and make them feel welcome. I later rebelled against some of the issues in that church (and that's a whole other story), but I left the church by the time I graduated from high school and went to another one that was more welcoming.

In that same church (this scene I do recall very well), I remember standing on the sidewalk in front of the church before services and watching the deacons turn away a man who was a guest of one of the members. He was a dark-skinned Indian with a turban, indicating that he was a Sikh. But because of his difference, the color of his skin and the fact that he was a unknown foreigner, they denied him access to worship that Sunday morning. Now I was nine or ten years old at the time, and I have a vivid memory of that picture, and it made me angry at the time and made me move into new directions in the way I tried to live out what I believed was the call of Jesus Christ and the church to reach out to all people.

There are many stories of people who have been turned away, but there are also some good stories about those who have been accepted. I remember a family that came to my church in Frederick, a single mother who had two children who were of mixed race. Her husband was African-American and she was white. The children struggled in many respects because of that, but they found a home in our church. They were accepted. They knew they were only going to be there awhile until her government job moved her elsewhere. But for a year and a half, they were active members of that congregation. The children participated in all aspects of Sunday School and the mother participated in worship and other things within the life of the church.

I remember another family that came, a single mother who had left an abused husband and struggled to find her way in the world. She had gotten Section 8 so she could get an apartment she could afford and gone on Welfare and gotten food stamps, enrolled herself in one of the government programs for education so she could get a better job. She, however, was rejected by her own family because they thought it was a black eye for the family for her to be on Welfare instead of trying to make it on her own. She came to church and was welcomed, and for the next few years, she and the children came and worshiped. And even at times when there was something like a bazaar, she made an effort to contribute something to it. She and the children did what they could to give. She eventually graduated, got a job in another county, and they moved away. But the few years that they were there hopefully made a difference in their lives and that they moved through life and knew the power of the church.

And then I remember another man in my church in New Hampshire. This was a church in a town where there was a lot of affluence. It was the home of Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the premier prep schools in New England. We had teachers from the academy, university professors, doctors and lawyers, and all kinds of people like that in the church. But there was one man who came to church regularly who was mentally slow. He lived with his mother who was on disability in a broken-down trailer. They lived on Welfare and he got what jobs he could washing dishes in restaurants. But most every Sunday, just before the worship service started, down the long aisle of the sanctuary he would come and sit two or three pews from the front and worship and be part of the life of that congregation. He wasn't dressed up, but he was there. And the people began to embrace him over time and they loved him. If there were things that came in to the church that they thought he and his mother might need like blankets or linens or things like that, they would offer them to him. But what touched me more than anything was after we started putting a box at the back of the sanctuary to collect food for the hungry, I watched him come in one Sunday and put in a can of soup. He made his contribution too. He was fully part of the life of that church even though he was poor and was not as bright as the rest of the people. He was there as part of the community of faith. And I'll never forget him because he reminds me of the way in which the church is composed of all kinds of people and how we are called to reach out. It's a kind of healing that happens when we reach out to people.

One author put it this way in talking about the hospitality of the church: 'We're not Jesus but, like him, we are here on earth only for a little while. And so we long for a life lived richly and deeply. We know there is something wrong with the patterns of a world in which people starve while others live in absurd wealth. We know there is something wrong when homeless people die of exposure after funding for their shelter is cut. We know there is something wrong when so many families are too poor to be able to serve their kids breakfast so it becomes a part of almost every child's school day, leaving even less time for learning. There is so much wrong in the world that Christians must attend to. It can feel overwhelming to turn to the practice of hospitality in a broken and inhospitable world.'

But, my friends, that's what we're called to do. We're called to live in a hospitality-oriented world. We are called to give of ourselves, to welcome all kinds of people. Healing happens in many different ways. We do not know when or how it will, but we know that it's all kinds of people who make up this world and that we are not called to be judges of who they are just because of the way they're dressed, of how poor they are, how rich they are, where they live, anything like that. We are called to give to the hungry, to reach out and help the homeless. We are called to live out our faith in so many different ways, and it doesn't take a lot. And the more we do, the more we are able to do. It's a wonderful opportunity. Our faith happens when we live it. It reaches out to all of our neighbors, no matter who they are or where they are on life's journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 6, 2009