A sermon by Jacob Dye, a pre-ministerial student at Emory & Henry College, delivered on Sunday, February 25, 2018, the Second Sunday in Lent & Greek Sunday, a the Emory United Methodist Church
Text: Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Before I get started this morning, I do realize that with today being Greek Sunday, there are people in here who don’t identify as Christian – whether that be because you identify with a different faith, or perhaps no faith. And although I will be speaking from a Christian standpoint today, it is my hope that there is a word in this message for you as well.
The passages of Scripture that we have just read, from Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, are the assigned readings for this Sunday from the Lectionary, or the schedule of readings for the Methodist Church and some other churches. And I think it is really fitting that both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings for today talk about communities. This church, Emory United Methodist, is a community – a faith community. All of us that are a part of this campus make up the Emory & Henry community. And many of us are here today because we are either entering into a new community, or welcoming new people into our community. When I mentioned to a friend of mine who doesn’t go here that I was going to be preaching on Greek Sunday, he jokingly, if somewhat cynically, suggested that I talk about abandoning exclusive groups, such as fraternities and sororities, and instead talked about joining the all-inclusive community of Christ. And when he first said that, I kind of laughed it off and responded with my own sarcastic comment. But after we talked, I really thought about what he said. And it occurred to me that while I wish the church were all-inclusive, the truth is there are many fraternities and sororities on this campus that are more inclusive than any church I’ve ever been in.
There are many exclusive groups that people belong to that can highlight our differences, or that can keep us somewhat separate. The groups can be as simple as a family or a place of employment. There are really only three ways to join a family: birth, adoption, or marriage. And for a place of employment to welcome you into its exclusive community, you’re going to have to apply, go through an interview, and meet certain requirements. And at the end of the day, you’re either in this family or you aren’t, you either work for this certain employer or you don’t. And yes, the same is true for Greek organizations. A group may have certain qualities that they look for in a person, and you are either in the group or you aren’t. You can’t just merely decide that you want to be in a family, or company, or fraternity or sorority, and it be so. But our passages of Scripture for today tell us that God’s family, and Christ’s community, aren’t supposed to be that way. While there are expectations of a person once they are in the community, such as to love others and care for the poor, the community of Christ is and should be open to all. Unfortunately, in many places, humans have set up barriers and limitations in attempts to keep other humans out.
So, as many of you may know, whether because you yourself are Methodist, or simply from attending a Methodist college, the United Methodist Church today is in a bit of a soul-searching stage. Our Book of Discipline, basically a guideline for what United Methodist’s believe, states that we affirm the value, dignity, and worth of all people. And yet the church is divided at the moment over whether or not that statement includes members of the LGBTQ+ community for marriage and ordination in the church. And I am proud today to be preaching to you in a church that has voted to become a Reconciling Congregation – that is, a Methodist church that is committed to being a fully welcoming and inclusive church to all people, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But while this is a major area in which the church often fails to be inclusive, it is not the only area. The United Methodist Church today is 94% white. And most denominations are not much more diverse than that. Many of you have probably heard the quote from Dr. King, saying that 11 AM on a Sunday morning is the most divided hour in America.
But again, the church’s lack of inclusivity doesn’t stop there. Many churches, although usually unintentionally, can be classist. While we have no doubt came along way from the practice in the 1800s of allowing wealthy families to pay to reserve the best pews in a church, and literally have a lock and key for that pew, simply by the way we might expect members to dress, or by the way we may talk about money from the pulpit, we can send off the message that not just anyone is welcome here. And lastly, although surely there are many more examples, many churches officially exclude women from leadership. And even though the United Methodist Church has ordained women since its inception in 1968, there are still churches in which the attitudes and actions of church-goers make women feel unwelcomed in the pulpit. For these failures of inclusion and for many others, it is appropriate especially now during Lent to say, Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
But all of this is not to say that this is just how the church is, or was ever supposed to be. And Jesus, in the Gospels, makes this exceptionally clear. You see, Jesus surrounded himself with all types of people. Jesus’s inner circle was made up of both men and women—there’s Peter and James and John, but there’s also Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Jesus. You also see both rich and poor people among Jesus’s disciples, from Matthew the tax collector, who was profiting off of the money the Jews had to pay to Rome, to people like Peter, who were working-class fishermen. Through different stories throughout the Gospels we see Jesus conversing with both Jews and Gentiles—people of the same faith as he is, and people of different faiths. In John chapter three, we see Jesus teaching a Pharisee— one of the very strict Jewish religious leaders. But one of the most frequent complaints that the religious people had was that he was always hanging out and eating with the “tax collectors and sinners.”
Today, we so often set up these requirements for who is in and who is out of Christ’s community. Whether it be official exclusions written down in our church doctrine’s, or unwritten exclusions that stem from the way we treat others, we impose barriers that Christ never intended there to be. And we see this in our reading today from Mark. A lot of times in Mark, Jesus is seen speaking with and teaching just his disciples. But in verse 34, it says that he called the crowds with his disciples. And Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The true community of Christ is open to any that want to follow him.
Are there some requirements? Sure. You have to deny yourself. Those things about you, those things that can set you apart from other people, once you’re in the community of Christ those things are to become less important. That means that if I’m a white, American male, I don’t see someone who doesn’t fit that description as any less of a child of God. And if I am a Dom-I-Necher, I don’t see someone who is pledging, or someone who is in another organization or no organization as anything less than a child of God. In our Old Testament reading earlier, we heard about God promising Abraham many descendants, and God promising Sarah that rulers of nations would come from her. The descendants of these two were to be by covenant the people of God, and in Christ God established a new covenant that makes all people, people of God. And as followers of Christ we are to recognize that, and to recognize that we are all united by a common humanity.
The second thing in verse 34 that Christ tells us we must do is that we must take up our cross. So what exactly does this mean? Well at the time Jesus said this, people would not have pictured a cross like the one that is behind me, nor would they have thought of wearing a cross necklace or something like that. To them, the cross was nothing but a symbol of execution—this was, after all, before Christ himself died on a cross. And so Christ was telling these people then, and is telling us now, that we must be willing to sacrifice things if we want to be his followers. For wealthier people who are Christians, this could mean sacrificing comfort so that others can live a higher-quality life. For people of privilege who are Christians, this could mean sacrificing that privilege, to work toward a time when all people are truly equal. Once again, to be a follower of Christ, we must be willing to de-emphasize, or perhaps give up those things which divide us.
And, finally, to be a follower of Christ, to be a Christian, we must actually follow Christ. We must care about the things that Christ cared about. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that if we desire to serve him we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those who are in prison. These are the things that Jesus cared about. And he cared about forgiveness, and compassion, and mercy. To follow Christ means to care about these things too. To follow Christ means to welcome the stranger, the outcast, and the marginalized. But as a Church, we so often fail to do that.
Gandhi once said, ““I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Many times, this statement is painfully true. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. We want to say that we are the inclusive community of Christ. But if we are to say that, then we must live up to it. Jesus gave us the example, and he told us what is required for someone to be his follower. The prophet Micah summed it up when he answered the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” It is to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God. James Fowler, a United Methodist pastor who specializes in psychology and faith development, relays an interview that a psychologist had with a 15-year-old girl. The psychologist asked the girl to talk about her faith. After a short discussion of what God is like and what her church experience was like, she profoundly said, “My church knows so much. I just wish it would live up to all that it knows.” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
For the Church to be the all-inclusive community of Christ, it must live up to what it knows. We must deny ourselves and see all those around us as beloved children of God. For those of you here today who are Christians, I am telling you that this is what the church is supposed to be like. For those of you here today who are not Christians, I’m not trying to convert you. I’m just trying to say that despite how people who call themselves Christians often represent the church, this is how Jesus intends for the Church to be. May we as the Church never stop working until all people who wish to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus are welcomed into the inclusive community of Christ.
Thanks be to God.