God's Open House

Sunday, September 9, 2018


When I was in high school we started going to this new church development. We had about 20 or 30 people there every Sunday, and if every single kid under the age of 18 showed up we had 5. Our pastor was a young guy fresh out of seminary, who had us doing a couple of new things, including a slightly different version of the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below, Praise Holy Spirit ever more, Praise triune God whom we adore. We didn’t have a building, we met in a school, and after church we packed everything in a trailer that we parked near our office, which was just past the drive-through liquor store. And we got this new young family that started visiting every week. They liked the church. The we liked them. Did I mention they had young kids? The only thing they didn’t like was the doxology. And quietly or loudly, I don’t remember. They made it known that they’d happily join the church, and on top of it give $10,000, if we’d just change the doxology back to the old words.

And the pastor said it would have to be up to the worship committee to decide. You know what the decision was, right? It wasn’t about the doxology. It was about whether one person was going to matter more than another person because of who they were and what gifts they had to bring to the table. It was about whether or not the church should do what it needs to protect its future.

Every church faces this temptation. Every pastor, whether they know how much people give or not (I don’t), has a pretty good idea of who they can’t afford to piss off (I don’t…yet). We know that our balance sheets are never too far in the black,

I bet some of you have felt this temptation outside of church too. A client you couldn’t afford to lose, no matter how poorly he treated you. A donor you needed to butter up, no matter where that money came from. A kid at school who could help you get invited to all the cool kid birthday parties.

None of these are new temptations. Listen to Neilos the Ascetic, a fifth century monk: “But, as for us, when we lack something, instead of struggling courageously against our  difficulties, we come fawning to the rich, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or  some crumbs. To get what we want, we call them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to  them, even though they may be utterly wicked.”[1]

And here it is in the passage we’ve just read from the book of James: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”(James 2:1)” It is an age-old temptation to treat people better because of what they can give us. It is how much of secular and corporate life works. And James says, if this is how you are acting, how can you say that you believe in Jesus Christ?

What happens when we start to think about people in terms of what they can give us? We become a part of a world where coffee is for closers. Where people only have value if they can give you something valuable. We start to make decisions, dangerous decisions, in which we value the institution more than the people within it. This is a key part in every abuse scandal, including the most recent ones—someone makes the choice to treat people according to what they can do for the institution, and forsakes those in greatest need. We turn all of our relationships into transactions. We turn the people in our lives into commodities, and we discard them when we no longer need them. Or we get discarded. When we fill our lives with people we keep around because of what they have to give us, and who keep us around for the same reason, we find that our lives are empty of the thing that we all so desperately need:

Unconditional love.

When everything around you becomes a transaction, you lose the essential truth that each and every person is a unique, beautiful, child of God, special because you are made by God and there is no one like you. This is what James is talking about because this is the core of Jesus’ message. You are worth something to God. You are worth everything to God. Not your job, not your money or lack there of, not your strength or your smartness or your time, but you. The exact person you are. You are worth living for, and you are worth dying for. Egypt and Sheba God would give for you. Calvary and Golgotha God did walk for you, because you are more precious to God than anything.

The life of Jesus Christ embodies the opposite of the way the rest of the world looks at human value. He is the representation of a different way of looking at people, in which we are not judged by what we have to offer, but by how much love we are capable of receiving. So when the other leaders are careful about who they interact with, here is Jesus with Gentiles and children, prostitutes and tax-collectors, the penniless and the hopeless and the tasteless. To Jesus each one of us is worth saving.

He tells a story that illustrates this. He said that it represented the kingdom of God. He paints the picture of a banquet that has been set by a wealthy man for his wealthy friends, an invitation in a series of invitations in which each of them rewards each other by returning the invitation. Only instead of guests he gets excuses. Suddenly everyone has to go see about an ox. So he throws the door open to his banquet hall, and he sends his servants to find everyone who will come. They go out into the streets and they come back with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Our job is to be the banquet of the kingdom of God. To welcome everyone, not based on what they have to give us, but based on what God has to give them. Unconditional love. Grace. The profound truth that no matter who you are or what you have to give, whether your wealth is great or your need is great, you are treasure in God’s eyes, and you are treasure in our eyes.

I’ve been getting ready to talk about Mr. Rogers with Theology on Tap this Friday. We’re talking about modern saints. And nobody is a better example of living a life in which everyone is treated as having value than Fred Rogers. So I watched that new documentary that came out a few months back, Won’t  You Be My Neighbor (I recommend it). It talks about a time when a young boy named Jeff Erlanger came on the show. Jeffrey was about ten years old, and a quadriplegic. He was in an electric wheelchair. And Mr. Rogers sits on his porch and talks with Jeff about his electric wheel chair, what it can do, how it came to be that he needed that chair, his doctors, his recent sphincter surgery. We watch Mr. Rogers with Jane sometimes, and one of the truly striking things is how glacially slow it can feel sometimes. Because it’s so rare to see that kind of patient listening anywhere on TV, or even in real life most of the time. And then Mr. Rogers says, “Do you know that song that I sometimes sing called ‘It’s you I like’? I’d like to sing that to you and with you.” And they sing it together.

It’s you I like.
It’s not the things you wear.
It’s not the way you do your hair,
But it’s you I like.

The way you are right now
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you
Not your fancy chair,
That’s just beside you.

…..I hope that you remember,
When you’re feeling blue,
That it’s you I like
It’s you yourself,
It’s you.

This is how Jesus, this is how God feels about you. Whether you are rich, or poor, whether you have a perfect family or not, whether you have a lot to give or nothing. Let us make sure that everyone who comes into this space knows that truth. And everyone who goes forth from this place goes forth ready to proclaim it.

[1] From the Philokalia, a collection of works collected by Nikodimos of Athos and Makarios of Corinth in the 18th century. Archived here: https://archive.org/stream/Philokalia-TheCompleteText/Philokalia-Complete-Text_djvu.txt