(Psalm 139; Romans 8:1-11; Matt 12:1-9, 18-23) J G White
Sunday, July 16, 2017, UBC Digby
Canada 150 has been celebrated… or not. The statue of Governor Edward Cornwallis has been… covered, for a time. Public online debate about the payout to Omar Khadr continues, on and on. In every story we can see Us and Them. Two opposing sides, of opinion, debate, action.
Romans 8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
Who’s in and who’s out? Who is saved and who are the unsaved? Pastor’s pet peeve: church membership…
It is not always a matter of ‘Us and Them.’ Sometimes it is more like ‘us AND them.’
There are more than two categories of those who hear the Word of the Kingdom of God. Not just Us and Them.
Parable of the Sower and the Seeds
Seeds fell on the path… birds at them up.
Seeds fell on rocky ground… sprouted but then died.
Seeds fell among thorns… got choked out.
Seeds fell on good soil… grew a great harvest!
We may wonder, is a person with God? Is God with that particular person? There are shades of gray, it is not all ‘black and white,’ so to speak.
We could start, thinking about the ways we know of God being near or close. Of God being with some one or with some group. One 20th Century theologian put it this way, as he thought about Holy Communion:
… we are bound to distinguish several degrees or modes of the divine presence.  To begin with the most general, we believe in the omnipresence of God. He is everywhere present. [NB Psalm 139]  And yet we also say that God is with those who trust and obey Him in a way in which He is not with others. We say, God is with them.  And we say that God’s presence is with us more at some times than at others. We speak of entering into His presence in worship, and ask Him to come and be with us and grant us His presence. We say that wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in the midst of them.  And then in apparently a still further sense we speak of the Real Presence in the sacrament. (D. M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments, 1957, pp. 97-98)
So I wonder how much God is with a person, not if they have God or not. More of a scale of one to ten, not yes/no.
Matthew gives us next Jesus’ parable of the Weeds and the Wheat…
It is not always our job to weed out the ‘outsiders.’
The Kingdom is hidden among us. It is a ‘divine conspiracy,’ the sure and subtle ways the Divine Love is undergirding this world and at work.
The unclarity about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is itself grace. It is my calling, and yours, to help everyone along in a good direction, the next good step. C. S. Lewis wrote of imagining every single person we meet, each destined to become a glorious being, one day, that we might be tempted to bow down and worship, or a tragic creature from which we would turn our heads. Moment by moment, we are helping others toward one of those two destinations. Even with this simple, two category thinking, the point is to point people in the right direction, no matter what direction they are pointed when you meet him or her.
For we do not know how it is with any other person’s soul. Just as well. It is grace. And when death comes, even we in the Church usually talk and act as if every person, everyone, is going to heaven, though our traditional teaching is otherwise. Look at all the people who have died in our area this year so far… did any not go to heaven? I imagine that at every funeral or celebration of life or memorial gathering they all were said to have gone on to a greater life.
There may well be a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven. Even a time for ‘Us and Them’ and a time for ‘us AND them.’ Our sacred stories, in the Holy Word, are filled with both attitudes.
Above it all remember, God desires everyone to be saved… Once, as the apostle Paul wrote about praying for leaders, he said: 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2)
Jesus’ beatitudes: The Kingdom He proclaimed was available for all, available to all. (Matthew 5)
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
God throws a party, and everyone is invited.
David Bruce at ASTE… Welcoming and including, not pushing back and protecting. Not pushing hands, hugging hands.
We must see ourselves a being in this together. Yes, we are different. Yes, some people are healthy and some not so healthy, when it comes to body or mind or spirit, their spiritual condition. But it is better to be together headed with us working to get us all the right direction than to be divided and isolated.
D’ya know Tony Campolo? He is a well-known Baptist author and preacher. In his book The Kingdom of God Is a Party (1990), Tony Campolo relates an experience he had late one night in Hawaii. He was far from home, in a very different timezone, and could not sleep…
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name, “greasy spoon.” I did not even touch the menu. I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?”
I said I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut.
As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.
It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.
“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanta know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”
A cute smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks, and he answered with measured delight, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea…”
At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes and me!
At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. …We all screamed, “Happy birthday!”
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I, I mean is it okay if I kind of, what I want to ask you is, is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home, if you want to.”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.
When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”
Looking back on it now, it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
Well, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create!
The welcoming arms of Jesus are for those we are pretty sure are out; and for those who might be in; and for any other category we come up with.
Charles Péguy said, “We must be saved together. We cannot go to God alone; else he would ask, ‘Where are the others?’” (Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer, 2010, p. 516)
Keep doing your best to welcome and include, not push away or put up walls. Others will thank you. Jesus will thank you.