‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
His first name was Eugene. I never knew his last name. Didn’t really care to know, to be totally honest. At Walter Reed Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 1970‘s no one paid too much attention to Eugene. Looking back, no one even really liked him. He was a trouble maker. He said the wrong things, acted in the wrong ways, participated in the wrong activities, and - God forbid - wore the wrong clothes. He lived on the “other” side of the neighborhood, where absolutely nothing good happened. At least, that is what we kids were told.
Eugene was never chosen at recess, never allowed to participate in after school shenanigans with other kids, never ever asked to come over to play by another. He was an outcast and everyone knew it. And because everyone knew it, we excluded him. We demeaned him. We bullied him.
Eugene wore that exclusion on his face. He walked through the halls with his head down. He spoke with a quiet voice that grew quieter over time. He began to blend into the lockers with no one really caring if he was there or not. It is quite sad and shameful thinking about it as an adult. Now, I would love to stand here and tell you how your pastor exhibited kindness and generosity towards this outcast in his time of need, but that would be an outright lie. Kids will be kids and cruelty is always cruelty.
Over the years, when I find myself in a large crowd, sometimes I spot Eugene walking in the distance. I never know for sure, of course, so I just smile trying to find a little forgiveness in small gestures. Eugene still crosses my mind these days, especially when I start thinking about topics like today’s. I always wonder, what if one of these times it really is him in the crowd. Would I approach him? What would say? How would I act? What would I do?
What would you do if it were you?
Inclusivity: Is it really that important?
Why NorthHaven? Why inclusivity? Aren’t there other things more important than this utopian pipe-dream ?
Let me be crystal clear on this one...NO!
If I could point to one reason Jesus was crucified upon a cross, in my opinion, it was because of his theology and practice of inclusivity. The religious and political leaders of his day hated it! The poor needed to remain in their class system, the outcast needed to remain outside the doors of everything, and the open minded need to keep their dang mouths shut. Of course, thank the Lord we do not have to deal with any of that these days, right?
Even though society thinks we have come a long way, the reality remains exclusivity is on the rise. Now, it may not look nor sound as direct as it once did, it may not even be as in-your-face as it was years ago, but make no mistake about it, deep rooted exclusivity is lurking in the shadows and peaking out every now and again to raise its ugly head.
Exclusivity (A.K.A. - discrimination, oppression, and/or marginalization) has settled into a more subtle practice. Even though the glass ceiling has been cracked, women still experience the sting of the gender gap. Even though race should not be a factor in how we judge people, take a look inside the American prison system and try to convince me racism does not exist. Even though the poor are better off than years gone by, try telling a poor mother who cannot get medicine for her sick child. There are many more examples I could list, but the idea is that a theology and attitude of exclusivity is on the move throughout our society.
So, where is the church when it comes to throwing open our arms to all that are “weary and carrying heavy burdens?” Where is the church in applying inclusivity to its policies, procedures, outreach, ministries, and mission endeavors? Where is the church when it comes to welcoming those who have been burned by religious intolerance, ecclesiastical brutality, or clerical rigidity? Unfortunately, the church at times is one of the most egregious perpetrator in some of these practices.
Thankfully, at NorthHaven, we attempt to practice a radical inclusivity which stresses the love of Christ over the rigidity of religion. We believe in the mercy of God winning out over the judgmental-ism of humanity. Furthermore, we firmly believe the church is a place where anyone should be offered the opportunity to fall into the healing arms of God’s grace.
Falling into the Grace of God
This seems to me exactly what Jesus was trying to state in our text this morning. “Come to me...take my yoke upon you,” are invitations by our Lord for people to discover the radical love and grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus was reaching out to people who were feeling very much excluded. From political to religious influences, the common person was not invited nor welcome to the table. Jesus not only invited them into his company, he dinned with them, he relaxed with them, he fellowship-ed with them, he taught them, and he loved them.
Tax collectors, prostitutes, foreigners, and other outcasts were the people Jesus seemed more at home with than any other. Ever wondered why? Most likely, Jesus knew what it was like to be on the outside of things. Not only was he from the other side Israel’s tracks in Nazareth, we mustn't ever forget about how his culture treated him as “a child of questionable birth.” On this side of the story we all know Jesus’ father, but the people in his day did not understand. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was a child born out of wedlock and those kind of children had it rough.
Jesus knew from an early age what it meant to be excluded. He knew from an early age the pain of being left out, not chosen, ignored because of something you could not control. He heard the name calling. He heard the “harmless” jabs people would make in his presence. He overheard the sweeping generalizations and condemnations about him and his family. So, make no mistake about it, Jesus knew the sting of exclusivity.
It is no wonder he practiced a radical inclusivity and encouraged his disciples to follow his lead...
Falling into the Grace of God’s Congregation
The church of Jesus Christ should always remains a healing place for those who are sick, those who are tired, and those who are lonely. The church should always be a place where the weary can lay their head, the hungry can fill their stomachs, and the parched can quench their thirst. The church should be a place where anyone can find sanctuary and residence, as they fall and keep falling into God’s grace.
Unfortunately, at times, the church has emphasized its exclusivity over that of being an open place for weary travelers. Through doctrinal declarations and outright meanness, the church has often acted more like the world than the Lord we claim to follow. As weary travelers consider knocking on the our doors, they do so with skeptical taps. Why? Because the church has gotten to be so unbearably noisy when it comes to their condemnation of the world, weary travelers feel as though the vacancy sign inside the church has been turned off. There is no space for them in the inn. They are not welcomed, nor are they really wanted.
It is for this reason, I am proud to be part of a congregation that throws open our doors to any weary traveler, to any parched soul, to any struggling individual, to any quizzical mind, and to any lonely person looking for a place to call home.
You are welcome. You are God’s child. You are loved.
NorthHaven is an inclusive community which seeks to be a haven for those who need the healing balm of a divine touch and a human embrace. Therefore, let’s define what being an inclusive congregation means, but before we explore what inclusivity means, let’s make sure we understand what it is not.
Inclusivity: What it is not...
First, inclusivity does not mean the void of exclusivity. From the moment the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit enteral life and rejected that offer, there has always been an element of exclusivity. This element is based on if you call yourself a Christian. If so, then you should believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah, following his teachings, and place your faith in him.
Now, this is quite simple...
To be called a Christian one must profess Christ as Lord.
To be called a disciple of Christ one must enter the baptismal waters.
Christian exclusivity simply means there are distinguishing marks for Christians.
However, exclusivity should never be used to ostracize, marginalize, or demean. While exclusivity has always been a part of the Christian tradition, it should never be used to isolate, to hate, or to kill. Unfortunately, history and current events demonstrate it has been used in all three of those instances.
Second, inclusivity does not mean the absence of doctrine. As insightful Christians, we posses a mind that forms thoughts and conclusions about God and his ways. These thoughts and conclusions establish the doctrines and principles that guide our faith and practice. Practicing inclusivity does not mean everyone gets to believe and act as they see fit. Everyone has a responsibility to God and to each other to read the Scriptures, interpret them with a free conscience, and practice their conclusions within the realm of a Christian community.
Our doctrines define us, but they should not be used as harmful or hateful daggers to demean or destroy others.
Third, inclusivity does not mean the lack of a moral compass. Those who are critical of churches practicing radical inclusivity argue the lack of a moral compass. This means, of course, they contend churches like ours let people act without any boundaries. Critics contend we never speak out against the moral decay of the world nor condemn behaviors contrary to their interpretations of Scripture.
Granted, to some extent they are right, but may it never be said we do not stand up for God’s justice in this world. The problem our critics have with us is not that we lack a moral compass, but rather it is not stuck in the same direction as theirs.
So, what is radical inclusivity and why do we practice it at NorthHaven?
Inclusivity: What it is...
First, inclusivity means a willingness to embrace. Jesus continuous selfless actions demonstrated for his followers the importance of including others into God’s mission. Through his willing to embrace, even the most sketchiest of characters, Jesus practiced a radical love that could only come from his Father.
We must learn from this example. If we are not willing to embrace the others in our lives, then we will never ascend to the kind of inclusivity Jesus practiced. We must eliminate the barriers in our attitudes and actions that prevent this practice. Barriers such as the gender gap, the race gap, the socio-economic gap, the political gap, and the religious gap, bar us from including others in our lives and in our faiths.
Think how rich our lives would be with other perspectives, other experiences, and other cultures teaching us. We do not have to agree on every point of theology, politics, economics, or what ice cream is the best, but we should be willing to embrace in hopes to include others in our lives. We share a common humanity seeking a common purpose...to live freely in order to live righteously. If we fail in our willingness to embrace, then all else succumbs to the tragedy of Rich Young Ruler...the tragic failure to try.
Second, inclusivity means the motivation to engage. After concluding we have a willingness to embrace, then we must engage other people in our lives. In Matthew, Jesus expressed his willingness to embrace, but he clearly went a step further. He sought to engage people. Now, here is where the Apostle James helps us, suggesting faith without works is dead.
How many churches in the world provide piles and piles of “words” without ever providing one ounce of service? How many people of faith talk and talk about making a difference, but never roll up there sleeves to get dirty in the mission fields of life? How many people talk about wanting their churches to grow, but never invite a friend to worship alongside them? Having a willingness to be inclusive is a good first step, but it is never the last step.
Third, inclusivity means living to love as God loves. “For God so love the world, he gave his only Son,” are the words people cite. Think about that for just a moment, will you? The verse does not say, “For God so loved only the few...only the ones who interpret the Bible like me...only the ones who vote for the right party...only the ones who give the most to the offering plate...only the ones who attend church the most often.” No, the verse simply and unequivocally says, “For God so loved the world.”
Why in God’s name can’t we not understand this simple truth? Why can’t we see the world as God sees it? Why can’t we exhibit the same grace as God exhibits towards us? Why can’t we demonstrate the same kindness as Jesus demonstrated towards others? Why can’t we love the same way God loves?
For anyone to embrace this notion of radical inclusivity and apply it to their lives, we must learn to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. We must learn to set aside our biases, lay down our stereotypes, and destroy our preconceived notions. We must learn to include others in our lives, because that is exactly what Jesus did in his life while he walked the earth and continues to do in his resurrected existence.
We must learn to reach out, embrace others, and love them as Jesus would love them.
Watching television one night and tinkering on a social media sight, I could not believe my eyes when his name popped up on my screen. With one click, I saw a face staring back at me that was unmistakable. The memories followed. The jokes. The laughs at his expense. The exclusion he must have felt because of our actions.
It was Eugene all right.
For some reason, Facebook’s notorious “friend” question seemed uncomfortably different this time, as though it mocked me for even thinking about clicking it.
My mouse hovered over the “friend” button for a few minutes. Frozen, I tried to decide if I had the guts to offer an invitation to a person I had once excluded. I mean really, would he even accept my invitation? Would he exclude me? He had every right, I knew.
I closed my eyes for a second and thought, “Should I take the risk and click the word ‘friend?’”
What will you do when someone different or new comes across your path?
Will you “friend” them?
For those attending church when I preached this sermon, I know many of you wondered what I did regarding Eugene. First of all, please know I changed his name to protect his identity. Second, the reason I did this for the sermon is because I did click the button. He accepted my friend request and we have exchanged some emails. He is currently living in another state, married, and has two children.