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Seventh Sunday After Epiphany: Loving, Welcoming, & Being in Community with All God’s Beautiful Children

Today’s Gospel reading is the continuation of Luke’s Version of the Sermon on the Mount called the Sermon on the Plain.  A commentator wrote that these verses continue Jesus’ teaching that put us hearers on a level plain/playing field with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the 12, the crowd of disciples and the “multitude” from all over the area. We all get to hear Jesus! 

So let’s enter our scene: Last week, we heard that, “power came out of him” and healed everyone. I think that detail is amazing — the real power that gives Jesus credibility was demonstrated before the speaking even began!  But it is a sermon, so Jesus does teach and he began by addressing the large crowd of his disciples (which remember means learners)! with the blessings and woes of the beatitudes.  

Today’s passage begins with a slight shift in the audience description as Jesus begins, “I declare to you who are listening.” Or translated a little differently: “I declare to you who are still listening.” Then he begins to describe the way in which those in covenantal relationship with God are called to live.  In other words, Jesus is teaching how to live the Kingdom of God way!  All that power that flows from Jesus is dedicated to and will bring about a very different world, God’s world.  

Jesus quickly lists actions that describe behavior for those still listening:  The very first one, “Love,” is followed by some quite concrete examples. Do good; don’t just think well of, but do good too. Pray for…bless…give…do. And everything that Jesus commands us to do is summed up in verse 36:  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Those who follow Jesus are to live as God lives, mercifully and generously beyond expectation, beyond comprehension. 

Just like now, the norm for the world is what “sinners” often do very well indeed: they love, lend, and do good. But for disciples, for God’s people: loving, lending, and doing good are all about generosity that does not draw boundaries based on the recipients’ responses. Love here is all about willing the good for another and acting on that will.  

I’m sure you noticed the golden rule tucked in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, “do to others as you would have them do to you” but Jesus is actually saying that it is insufficient for those in relationship with God. Your wishes for yourself are not the best measure for how you treat others!  Rather, God’s mercy, God’s loving kindness as it can also be translated, is to be the measure for God’s people’s behavior.

In these verses, we see that generous healing, restoration, and hope flow through Jesus. But faith is not a passive endeavor!  So Jesus makes sure we who are listening know that it is our calling as well.   We are called to live in God’s realm, in accord with God’s character, and the power is there for us to do it — to be caught up, to be healed, to receive and live mercy. 

Have any of you ever heard of a Lutheran pastor by the name of Lenny Duncan? 

In 2019, he published his first book titled DEAR CHURCH. In the intro he shares the powerful encounter he had with people who did what Jesus calls for us to do.  “I am a pastor but if you looked at my life story,” he writes, “it was more likely that I‘d end up in prison than the pulpit.  I am a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and felon.  But I got here because I met Jesus when I met you, CHURCH.”  

He shares about his first experience in the ELCA at Temple Lutheran in Havertown, Pennsylvania, when the pastor stood at the communion table and declared, “This is Jesus table; he made no restrictions and neither do we.”  

Duncan says he was smitten immediately! There was no membership meeting, no checking his theology, no ‘friendly talk’ with the pastor before he approached the table of grace. He was welcome and it was a revolutionary idea and experience for him! 

He writes, “You loved me, you really loved me. You showed me that my past didn’t make me unworthy to receive the nearness of God – I could stand before the table of grace, a whole person, deeply flawed and still incredibly valued, handmade by a loving God. I stood among those people who didn’t look anything like me and thought I had never felt more at home!  I was standing there in my t-shirt and jeans with about 30 tattoos littering my arm. Stretch piercing in my ears.  The only other black person in the sanctuary was a little girl, but everyone was welcoming!” He goes on to say that you, the ELCA, took my story, my tattoos, my brokenness and embraced the whole me!  

I love that and am grateful for his blunt honest words — no matter how he looked, what he had done, he was welcomed into a church that lived out Jesus words that we hear today:  to love, do good, bless and pray;  do not judge or condemn; forgive and give.  Now his book is a challenge to our church (the subtitle is “a love letter from a black preacher to the whitest denomination in the US”) to continue the radical work that he was on the receiving end of and extends himself: offering Jesus’ different vision of life on earth: a vision of a table where all can eat, no matter what their status or identity.

Today is the 4th Sunday, I am asking Zion’s to consider how we do this radical work of Jesus.  Are we being as welcoming, inclusive and loving as we want to be, think we are, can be?  

I’ve asked us to think of those who have physical or intellectual disabilities, mental illness or identify as LQBTQIA. To consider how they feel, are received, are embraced, are LOVED by us.  Today, I wonder how those who are people of color experience Zion’s.  Do our international brothers and sisters, our African American, Asian, Latino or Native American siblings, our refugee/immigrant/asylum seeking family members feel more at home, more embraced, more loved here than at any other place?  

We are a loving welcoming community of grace, of God’s mercy, but do “THEY” know that?  Do they know they’d be loved unconditionally here?  And would they be?  Would they say, “Zion’s took my story, my tattoos, my brokenness and embraced the whole me?” 

I think so, I pray so, and I participate in the work to make it so — loving and living the kingdom of God in a way that Jesus so bluntly presents to us today.  It’s countercultural, it’s not the world’s way, it’s the life-giving way of God!  And yes, it’s often the hard way and honestly, we often don’t do it as well as we’d like, but our God is a God of mercy, of love, and so we too are embraced and claimed as children of the Most High and we get second, third, and 1000th chances to live the kingdom of God way.  

So, now what do we do about todays question? How do we go about learning to welcome, love, and be inclusive even better than we do so that,EVERYONE of color feels so welcomed that they’d say, “You loved me.  I loved you”. Will they recall and say, “I remember standing among these people who didn’t look anything like me and thinking I had never felt more at home?”  

Once again, I have a few ideas. I think we need to hear their stories — listen to their experiences in life: their families, their work, not just in a church. We can do this by reading, listening to podcasts, having open conversations with people who would say they look different than those of us here… 

But don’t be naive:  those stories can hurt and shock us.  My sister-in-law is Korean and never once would I have expected Craig and Kyuri or their kids to experience racism as Americans, but they have!  Ask people about their experiences.  

We can also look for ways to learn and share in the joy of different communities.  When I lived in Oklahoma City we had an interfaith alliance where the Turkish Tea House hosted women monthly to come and eat the food they had prepared for us, listen to a woman talk about her work, and simply mingle together. I wonder if there is such a possibility with the newly relocated Afghan refugees we are helping to sponsor in Colorado Springs?  

How can we love better, like Jesus? Lots of modern disciples are asking this question!  

I am almost done with Rachel Held Evan’s last book, “Wholehearted Faith” and in one of the final chapters she writes, “We need to learn about God, about God’s love, about the difficult journey of risk and love from those who might not show up in the churches of my childhood:  people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, atheists and agnostics, disabled and neurodivergent folks, immigrants and refugees. I’ve encountered their voices and found their wisdom through social media and in the pages of books.”  

The challenge and call for us — no matter our community, no matter our communities — is to be faithful hearers and curious recipients, even and perhaps especially of stories that differ from our own, Rachel says.  

I agree.  So, I think we need more stories…but, we also need more places to engage those stories…

We need to engage during our times of worship, but also gather at other times and places! Around the table for food, study, conversation, sharing, blessing, encouraging, and empowering. 

Dear people of God, what we are being asked to do is love like Jesus!  Let us never be complacent or too comfortable in how WE do this, let us always look for the power of God that comes through Jesus and empowers us to join the disciples of all time in generous healing, restoration, and in living with love AND hope. Because — do not miss Jesus words today — we are called to live the kingdom way.  

Let us do this in real concrete ways  by loving, welcoming, and being in community with all God’s beautiful children.  Amen?  Amen!