Questions While You Wait (Pt. 3): Who do we welcome?

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Who do we Welcome?

A sermon for the people of God

At Greenbelt Community Church, United Church of Christ

This is the third in a series of “Questions While You Wait” – a series of sermons from the book of Isaiah. We asked ourselves:

In week 1 – What are we thirsty for?

In week 2 – Who are we listening to?

And this week the question is: Who do we welcome?

This week’s text from Isaiah 56 is found in a collection of writings that Hebrew scholars refer to as “Third Isaiah”. Something we have not really explored is that the book of Isaiah could not have been written by one person. (Unless they lived over a few millennia!)

A little Bible nerd moment here: The whole book of Isaiah includes prophetic material related to the Assyrians (who were attacking Israel in 8th Century BCE), the Babylonians (6th Century BCE), and the Persians returning the children of God back to their homes in the 5th Century BCE).

Does this change the power and the scope of this book? No, absolutely not! If anything, it provides a sense of continuity and a theme of God’s provision for God’s people. There was a person named Isaiah – that much we know. As the scrolls of the Hebrew scriptures were compiled and taught, the additional teachings were collected under his name. Scholars have divided the book into 3 sets of writings. Our text this morning is from the third set.

Why is this important? Well because it is believed to have been written as a result of Cyrus the Great conquering Babylon in 539 BCE. Cyrus then allowed the restoration of God’s people back to Israel from the Babylon. It was a time that had been promised, and as we read last week, the people were listening to and believing those promises while they were in exile.

This week’s text begins with a pronouncement that the Covenant between God and God’s people has been extended to all who obey. Not just the 12 tribes. Not just the northern Kingdom. All people. There is a clear invitation to all people to become followers of the Holy God of Israel.

Hear the Word of the Lord:

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8 (NRSV)

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey

Thus says the Lord:
    Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
    and my deliverance be revealed.

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;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
    who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
    besides those already gathered.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This week’s question may feel like a no-brainer to you. Who do we welcome? Um… everyone! It’s true. You mean it what you say:

Whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey,
you are welcome here.

You are an open and affirming congregation. You care about your neighbors. You focus your ministries around those who need support. Yes. All true.. but…

Who is still on the margins?

As someone who works with people with health challenges every day, I come up against a barrier that often prevents their needs being met. A simple issue: language. I don’t speak Cantonese. Or Spanish. Or Russian, Portuguese or Croatian. There is this beauty of an invention called the Language Line where someone helps me by simultaneous translation so that I can provide for their spiritual and emotional needs.

But here… what if we have people who come here (ALL are welcome, right?) and English is not their first language? I know you have done the studies about your area in your work on church growth. You know the demographics have shifted in this area. That’s not a bad thing. It means the nations of the earth are coming to your front door!

But here… what if we have people who come here (ALL are welcome, right?) and English is not their first language? I know you have done the studies about your area in your work on church growth. You know the demographics have shifted in this area. That’s not a bad thing. It means the nations of the earth are coming to your front door!

When we talked last week about listening I asked you “what is God’s unimaginable, inconceivable, amazing plans for you?” Maybe you figure out a way to simultaneously translate the service for speakers of other languages. A church I attendedin Miami did that. They had a small broadcast booth with a low-powered radio station.

Besides language, there’s ability. When I had arthroscopic knee surgery last year, I would think twice about climbing steps. Or having to stand a long time. Or even walking across uneven ground, down a slope, or navigating a long sidewalk on my crutches. My achy break knee would complain if I taxed it too much. Thankfully, with a lot of physical therapy and rest, I’m about 95% back to normal. But there are folks in this congregation who find the steps into the building… a challenge. And when we return to this building… it can be a barrier… Consider that there are many individuals who have mobility challenges and find coming to this building too much to overcome.

Who else is on the margins? Who else could be part of this growing, joyful group of God’s people?

  • People who need ASL translation.
  • Families with kids that make noise and are… messy. A church that has the noise of younger ones is a church that is alive and has a generation to grow the church onward.
  • People who drive to come to church… I noted when I visited the first time there was not a lot of… parking.  Yes, as regulars, we can find a spot to park on the street. But a new person may be dissuaded. What about the folks who are… not from Greenbelt? Who drive from… Bowie. Or even Montgomery County?

You might wonder, Why does this matter to God?  Because God made it clear that all were welcome. It was not just for insiders any more.

God declared that the people of God were to care for the aliens, the poor, the hungry… to welcome the stranger. God reminded them that when they were in Egypt, they were the “stranger.” They were the ones who need food, and shelter. They probably didn’t know the language, either!

…because you were aliens in the land… (Leviticus 19)

I know some of you have been worshiping here a long time – but try to imagine if you came here and didn’t know anyone. At all. Or you knew one person. A church that is growing and thriving is a church that makes a way for strangers in the land to become a vital part.

The covenant that was between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – God broadened that Covenant to include the stranger. The foreigner. The outcasts of Israel were gathered, and with them, all those who were willing to abide by God’s covenant Law:

All who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my Covenant… (Isaiah 56:7)

…ALL people. I shouldn’t wonder but that this got under their skin a little. I imagine they might have thought something like this:

Now, wait a minute, Lord. We got hauled off to Babylon and lost our homes and our flocks and our vineyards and… you want us to… welcome in some of the people who captured us?

It must have been mind-boggling.

But I think there is a cautionary tale for us. Whenever we “other” someone. Or say “those people”. Or make a comment that is thinly veiled racism… we are not moving in concert with the plan of God. All means all, y’all.

Like it or not, there are racist groups in Maryland. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 19 groups, including the Klan. Even Greenbelt, with the highest ideals of community and cooperation, has its racist roots. The Friends of the Greenbelt Museum recognized that they had not done enough to educate themselves and those of us who are their constituents about the discrimination faced by Black families in the building and development of Greenbelt. Those of us who have privilege, experience, and even money – need to consider how we might better change our words, our attitudes… and our actions.

Jesus, as our example of incarnate divine love, was a person who accepted and went out of his way to welcome the… unwelcomed. In fact, it was a comment that the Pharisees and Saducees used to slander him: “He hangs out with tax collectors and sinners!”

You know the stories… The tax collector Zaccheus. The Canaanite woman. The Roman centurion. The unnamed woman with the jar of nard. A bunch of working-class fishermen. They were all loved, welcomed, invited into the fellowship. Jesus was much more concerned about the 1 lost sheep than the 99 in the fold, you know…

Those of you who are doing the work of outreach… education… building and grounds… and worship… Who do you welcome? Who is still outside? And how can we, as God’s people, bring in the ones who are not here – yet.

I leave you with that question, believing that God will invite you into that task.

Please pray with me…

Lord, if we understood even a portion of how much you love us, and how much you long for all peoples to experience that love, I know it would change us. It would motivate us. It would strip away our prejudices. It would challenge our assumptions.

We are your people, and this church is your church. And we want all peoples to come and be a part of this beacon of love and light and hope to our community.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

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