SCRIPTURE LESSON: Matthew 28:16-20

On my mind this morning is a phone conversation I had with a woman interested in joining us for worship.

Although my intentions were good, I failed to abide by my number one rule: assume that every interested caller has been hurt or harmed by the church and is at risk of being put off. Because that’s what happened: I put her off.

How do I know? She said as much. “It sounds like you’re saying my husband and I don’t belong there.” She was a blue-collar worker, and her husband had recently been released from prison. Something I had said—or maybe something I hadn’t—made her feel the two of them would not be welcome.

Despite my assurances to the contrary, the damage had already been done. I never heard from her again, something that grieves me still.

Although I would like to think that in the great scheme of things, I am a little more like Jesus and a little less like a Pharisee, although I would hope that it is obvious that I am a person of wide embrace, I am not the one who gets the last word here. Others make that determination.

What was it about Jesus that had those who encountered him know without a doubt that he was a safe harbor, even when—especially when—they were regarded as outsiders, outcasts, or even outlaws?

Jesus excelled at perceiving and communicating each person’s worthiness, belovedness. Isn’t this why he drew crowds everywhere he went? Who wouldn’t want to be fully seen and loved?

Our lesson today speaks to this. Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry and is still in the process of gathering up his circle of disciples. Jesus understands that despite the despicable way Matthew earns his living, he very much belongs.

When Matthew arrives at Jesus’ house, he finds a whole host of others there—all manner of so-called sinners, along with Jesus’ freshly-recruited disciples. This gathering is a scandal, of course. Not to us: we know better. But certainly, it is a scandal to the Pharisees.

With their unwavering focus on ritual purity, the Pharisees are beside themselves, seeing the sort of people Jesus has gathered together. But compassion, not purity, is Jesus’ frame. This vast difference has the Pharisees at odds with Jesus—and this will be the case until the bitter end.

Back to my question. What was it about Jesus that had people know and trust that he was completely and utterly safe, that nothing and no one was beyond the reach of the love God had given him to share?

We might also ask this of ourselves as a church. What is it about Community Spirit that has those who are hurting, those who have been harmed, those who have been judged know and feel that we are as open to them in this time as Jesus was in his?

Before we answer, I want to offer a sobering quote from Tim Keller, an American theologian and clergyman who recently passed away.

Keller said, “Jesus… consistently attracted the irreligious while offending [scripture]-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have that effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones… The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can mean only one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.”


I offer Keller’s thoughts not as an indictment but as an invitation. An invitation to look more deeply than we might typically be inclined to do. We often believe that we are more loving, more accepting than we are.
Surely even the late televangelist Pat Robertson was convinced that what he said and did was grounded in love for those he most regularly targeted.

And although we resemble Robertson not at all, if Keller’s assertion has merit, then even the most beautifully loving person or community has blind spots that would prevent us from reaching those whom Jesus intends.

All this might sound a bit abstract were we not busy gearing up to go to Pride in Ridgway next Saturday.

Those serving on our InReach/OutReach Ministry Team have invested all sorts of time and creativity to proclaim at Pride that despite what the institutional church has too often insisted, despite what society too frequently says, each soul in the LGBTQ community is—and will always be—a beloved child of God.

This we will say with words, activities, and giveaways. But mostly, and most powerfully, we will communicate this by the way we are present to any and all we engage.

As with Jesus, our presence, our centeredness in God’s unwavering love, will have others know and feel their inherent, eternal worth.

As a church, we are going to Ridgway to convey God’s unalterable love, not to save anyone from the devil’s clutches. Although we might hope to save a soul or two from the devilishness that is “love the sinner but hate the sin” Christianity.

And yet God’s unconditional love is not all that we are called to bring to our encounters and exchanges in Ridgway. We will open ourselves to being taught and changed by those we engage. Love demands this of us.

“Go, learn,” Jesus says to his disciples as he prepares them for the days ahead. His counsel for us is the same.

Go learn from those whom God loves.

Go learn about the very real mercy extended to them by our gracious Creator.

Go learn about the hopes and dreams that God has placed in people’s hearts.

Likewise, go learn what belonging to the LGBTQ community is like these days.

To love truly, fully, is to be willing to be challenged and changed by what others share about their lives, their needs, their realities.

Right now, in these United States and here on the Western Slope, every member of the LGBTQ community has something to teach.

And not merely about their identity but also about what it is like to be alive at a time when Christian organizations are actively funding and overseeing homophobic and transphobic efforts to reduce and remove LGBTQ rights, privacy, and personal autonomy.

To date, more than 417 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in statehouses across the country, the highest number ever. Christians have funded the bulk of these.

Recently a member of the LGBTQ community posted a meme that read: “Don’t just tell me I am loved because of who I am. Promise me you’ll stand up against those who wish to do me harm or even erase me. Because that is what love does; it takes action.”

We did just that earlier this year when the library was, dare I say, under siege by earnest but misguided Christians. It simply would not have been enough for the LGBTQ community if, instead of showing up at the library, we had posted on our Facebook page a message saying, “Even if they don’t celebrate you, we do.”

No, for our love to mean something, for our love to make a difference, we were compelled to step up and stand out as allies. We had to put legs and lungs on our love for our LGBTQ kin. Legs and lungs that, combined with the efforts of others, turned the tide.

In an online essay this week, Christian writer and thought leader Diana Butler Bass responded to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicating that our country is in a reactionary moment, one that is adversely and disproportionately affecting black, brown, and LGBTQ communities.

“I wish we could just remind people to love their neighbors. It would be wonderful if a call to love would solve the problems listed in the SPLC report,” Bass wrote.

“Love is, of course, the answer,” she continued. “And while most people of faith can agree on the command to love our neighbors, we need to face the reality of this moment…While I appreciate the power of preaching and teaching, not even the most compelling sermons about love—or shaming others about loving the neighbor—are going to change what is calculated strategies to deny the humanity, safety, and flourishing of our fellow citizens.”

“Love must be our answer—loving God, our neighbors, and creation,” Bass went on to say. “But love is far more than good feelings or emotions. Love must be organized, active, and committed to the full dignity and worth of everyone. It isn’t enough to preach against hate. Hate is infiltrating our everyday lives—like the poisoned air filtering down from northern wildfires—hardly visible until the air is so thick with toxins that no one will be able to breathe.”

“You can’t get rid of the smoke. You have to put out the fire.”

What was it about Jesus that had those around him know and feel that they were loved, that they belonged? What was it about Jesus that had people chase after him, cry out to him, press up next to him, and crowd the road to Jerusalem, cheering him as their king, their savior?

Surely it was Jesus’ very presence, body and soul, that conveyed profound, unwavering love. It was also, I believe that Jesus communicated in word and deed his willingness to go the distance. To go the distance for love.

Will you pray with me?

Jesus, go with us when we go to Ridgway next Saturday. Let it be your love that we share, your very presence we impart as we learn, serve, and are changed. Inspired by you, we, too, seek to go the distance so that the love you have given us to proclaim makes a difference not only for individuals but also for our community, nation, and world.