November 15, 2018
On Sunday, Nov. 11, Bishop Dindy Taylor preached during a Grand Pre-Opening Celebration of a new welcome center at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Taylor, resident bishop of Holston Conference, participated in a ceremony that also included Bishop Richard Looney, Bishop David Graves, and former Church Street pastor, the Rev. Andy Ferguson. The service was attended by 688 people on the same day that Bishop Taylor’s fourth grandchild was born.
"IT'S SO GOOD to be with you all here this morning. … You know, it is such a glorious day when you have a new grandbaby born. We’ve seen pictures. We know that he is perfect, that God has created him, that our daughter is still well and healthy. We don’t have any idea of how much he weighed or what his name is. So have you ever been in that situation, yet to be named?
We are so excited, and because of that, we didn’t get much sleep last night. How many of you all didn’t get that much sleep last night? So if you didn’t get that much sleep last night, you are free to snooze through this sermon. It’s OK, just as long as I don’t. I’ll ask David Graves to kind of pull on me if I start to go to sleep.
You know, this day is such a glorious day. We gather together to consecrate this beautiful new welcome center for Church Street. I remember being here not so long ago to break ground for this addition. I had to look it up on my calendar. I knew it was in April of 2017 but it was actually April the 23rd, 2017, the year of our Lord.
We had an inside service -- you all that were here will remember that we had an inside service of younger and older persons in the congregation taking part, and then we gathered outside in the rain. Bishop Looney handed me a hard hat and a shovel. I think I looked pretty good in my hard hat. I’m not going to talk about how he looked in his. I remember it was a great day of anticipation, of joy, of laughter, and some folks were so eager, I wondered, I honestly wondered if we might unearth the entire area with just those shovels.
Building a welcome center in this time, with all that is going on in our world, with all that is going on in our church, is an incredible, hope-filled symbol to the Knoxville community. As I have considered the upcoming special called General Conference ... You all will remember in 2016, the General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to appoint a Commission on a Way Forward, and then the General Conference delegates in 2019 are gathering to determine the “way forward” for our beloved United Methodist Church. There are many who are preparing for the worst, but we, my friends, are people who follow and live in the path of a resurrected Jesus.
WHO IS WELCOME?
I’m reminded of a sermon Bishop Ken Carder preached from Jeremiah; he may have preached from this very pulpit on Jeremiah. When all was in ruin, when the country had been torn apart and devastated by war, Jeremiah bought a field and invested in the future. That’s what you all are doing here at Church Street. You’re investing in the next 100 years, as Andy Ferguson has said. You’re investing in the future of yet-to-be disciples of Jesus Christ who will enter these doors and become part of this congregation.
I think that we are struggling as a denomination with one simple question. Who is welcome in our churches? I really think that’s our question ... All sorts of persons come down in different places on that, but who is really welcome in our churches?
It fascinates me that the greatest pushback that Jesus received from the religious leaders of his day was focused on whom Jesus welcomed. Who would Jesus welcome? This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. This man eats with tax collectors, people who have done things that are so atrocious and turned against their neighbor and community. This man eats with them. This man welcomes them.
Twenty-five years ago, when Eugene Peterson published a translation of the Bible that he called The Message, he gave us some helpful insight into how we are to understand the message of Jesus today. In his introduction to the gospel of Luke, Peterson clarifies the nature of the conversation that Jesus has with some grumbling religious leaders. Now, I’ve been a United Methodist pastor for a long time, and I’m here to say that I’ve heard through those years a few grumbling religious leaders. I don’t know if that’s true of anybody else. I may have just had all the difficult churches in the conference to serve. I don’t know. But sometimes there are people who grumble.
This is how Eugene Peterson introduces Luke’s gospel:*
THERE ARE NO OUTSIDERS
Luke [is] the only gentile in an all Jewish cast of New Testament writers. Luke shows us how Jesus includes those who were typically treated as outsiders by the religious establishment of the day: Outsiders, women, common laborers, the radically different and the poor. All of us from time to time feel left out; that we don’t belong; that others seem so confident, so sure of themselves; that others are on the inside, who know the ropes -- old hands in a club for which somehow we feel that we aren’t comfortable or welcome or are excluded.
One of the ways we have of responding to this is to form our own club, to join together with other people that will have us. Here, at least, is one place where we are “in” and others are “out.” The clubs range from all sorts of informal to formal gatherings that are political, social, cultural, economic. But the one thing they have in common -- the one thing -- is the principle of exclusion. Identity or worth is achieved by excluding all but those who have been picked or chosen.
We pay a terrible price for keeping all those other people out so that we can savor the sweetness of being insiders, but it reduces reality and shrinks life and value. Nowhere is this price more terrible than when it is paid in the cause of religion. Religion has a long history of doing just that, of reducing the huge mysteries of God, the unfathomable wonder of God, to the respectability of rules of clubs -- of shrinking the community, the vast human community, to “members.”
But, Eugene Peterson writes, with God there are no outsiders. Jesus illuminates his response to the grumbling about welcoming and eating with sinners – who, by the way, include all of us -- by telling them the parable of the lost sheep, the 90 and 9. When we hear this parable, we often go immediately to the numbers. If we have 99 percent, why would we be worried about the 1 percent? 99 percent! Oh my goodness, that’s almost total. But what about the 1 percent we can’t find?
Jesus never considered, “What would be an acceptable loss?” Everyone mattered.
Think about it. Everyone mattered. The children brought to Jesus -- who the disciples shooed away -- mattered to Jesus. Two blind men mattered to Jesus. The woman who had been bleeding for 12 years mattered to Jesus. Two men living in a cemetery all alone mattered to Jesus. A man with leprosy mattered to Jesus. The Centurion’s servant, paralyzed and suffering, mattered to Jesus.
Peter’s mother-in-law, bedfast with a fever, mattered to Jesus. The paralyzed man lying on a mat mattered to Jesus. The man who was demon-possessed and could not talk mattered to Jesus. The paraplegic carried on a stretcher mattered to Jesus. And when Jesus said to him, “Cheer up. I forgive your sins,” some religious scholars then whispered and grumbled, if you will, “That’s blasphemy.” They had the distorted idea that Jesus’ ministry of healing was somehow sacrilegious.
I loved Matthew’s description of what Jesus was doing.** He made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported Kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And then Jesus says to his disciples -- and he says to us today as his disciples – “What a huge harvest, how few workers. On your knees and pray for harvest hands,” for people who will model and follow in Jesus’ way of letting people matter.
Everywhere Jesus went, every person Jesus encountered, he recognized as one made in God’s image. That is the secret, that everyone is made in the image of God. We can only be workers in God’s harvest when we see everyone as made in the image of God.
ALL PEOPLE SAFE HERE
So, I want to ask you a question. How many of you been to Yassin’s Falafel House over here on Walnut Street? Oh, I see those hands! If your hand is not up, look at your neighbor because they know a good thing.
About a month ago now, Yassin’s Falafel House was recognized by “Reader’s Digest” as the “Nicest Place in America.” Yassin came to the United States from Syria seven years ago. The civil war in Syria is a humanitarian crisis, as unbelievable suffering is being placed upon very innocent people. We should all be grieved by what’s happening in Syria. Yassin and his family were recognized on “Good Morning America,” and in fact, Robin Roberts came to Knoxville to visit Yassin and to see for herself the nicest place in America. That weekend, Rusty and I went by his store on Peters Road, not far from our house, and we were able to see him and congratulate him.
Now the reason I believe that Yassin’s Falafel House has been recognized as the nicest place in America – and on an upcoming issue of “Reader’s Digest,” his picture and his family will be on the front -- but I believe the secret of that is found in a sign that he has in both his stores. If you’ve been there, you’ve read it.
Welcome ... all sizes ... all colors ... all ages ... all sexes ... all cultures ... all religions ... all types ... all beliefs ... all people safe here.
All people safe here. Now, you’ve probably guessed it: Yassin is a Muslim. He’s a super nice person. When we congratulated him on his restaurant, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of our churches would qualify as being the nicest place in America?
As Luke took the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, he made a profound revelation: The reckless love of God will do whatever it takes to find those who are lost. Cory Asbury says it in a song with that same title, the “Reckless Love” of God:
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God / Oh, it chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine / I couldn't earn it, and I don't deserve it, still, You give Yourself away / Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
There's no shadow You won't light up / Mountain You won't climb up / Coming after me / There's no wall You won't kick down / Lie You won't tear down / Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
That’s exactly what you’re doing here with this welcome center. An interesting insight about being lost is revealed as Jesus concludes the story of the lost son, or what we often refer to as the “prodigal son.” This brother of yours was dead and he’s alive. He was lost and he’s found. Now there is a scripture, a pattern, where the last thing mentioned is the most important. I want you to catch the significance of that. For Jesus is saying to be lost to be out of community with others is worse than death itself. And to be found, to be restored to community, to be welcomed into community, is better than life itself.
Today we celebrate the welcoming ministry of Church Street. It’s a joyous time, and we count our blessings this day. However, the challenge that the church has faced over the last 2,000 years is still the same. Who will we welcome? Will we welcome people the way Jesus welcomed people? Will we welcome people the way Jesus welcomed people?
MERCY FOR ALL
We often find ourselves -- and there’s a book by Dr. John Ortburg, it’s one of his latest books, and the title of it is, and I want you to get this – “I’d Like You More if You were More Like Me.” We are living in a time where you often hear about another line being drawn in the sand. There’s discussion, so much discussion about immigration, and whom we will welcome in our country. I’m not making any presumption that our laws should be broken, but every time a line is drawn or barrier is placed, Jesus is on the other side with those who are excluded. Every time a line is drawn or barrier is placed, Jesus is with those who are excluded.
This past Thursday we were in South Carolina, visiting with Mandy as she tried to prepare to give birth to that little unnamed grandchild. Thursday night after we had supper with them, with her family, we went across the parking lot to Ulta. Now you don’t have to tell me if you know what Ulta is. It is a beauty-supply store on steroids, and whether you can tell it or not, I go there quite often. Just saying.
As I was checking out, I noticed the woman who was behind the cash register, who was waiting on me had a tattoo, right across her arm here, that looked like a Hebrew word. I can’t read Hebrew but I know what it looks like in written form. So I asked her, “What does that word on your arm mean? It’s Hebrew, isn’t it?” And she said the word is Ruhamah. Ruhamah. It’s from the Bible. It’s from Hosea. It means, “She has received mercy.”
Well, I was intrigued by that and when we went home, I looked it up. Sure enough, there in Hosea, God’s message to the unfaithfulness of Israel, to the unfaithfulness of Hosea’s wife Gomer: “And he said, ‘Your children should be named Lo-ruhamah, one who does not receive mercy.’” But Lo-ruhamah, later in Hosea, becomes Ruhamah, one who does receive mercy. God offers mercy to all. I believe that God is inviting us to welcome all so that we might share the good news of God’s mercy, available to all people, as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you, but one thing I know about myself, I need to know and to receive God’s mercy, and the church has been that place where I have received that my entire life. May our welcoming here at Church Street reveal to all people the mercy of God. I think we must confess that it’s not easy to welcome all.
IS THE TABLE OPEN?
Two weeks ago last night, we were in Jacksonville, Florida, for my brother Terry’s wedding. My brother is 74. His wife of 30-some years died after a 20-plus battle with breast cancer a few years ago. And so Terry was pretty much feeling his life was over. Then he met Diane. So we went for my brother and his new bride, to witness their marriage in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, right downtown in Jacksonville. It’s on the Historical Register. It’s a beautiful Roman Catholic church, one of only three buildings that were not burned in 1901 where there was a great fire that burned most of Jacksonville.
At the close of the ceremony, in this Roman Catholic basilica, Rusty and I were about on the fourth row ... Near the close of the service, they offered communion. So the ushers were coming down and letting people out, you know, as we do: “Your row can now go.” And so, Rusty didn’t get up. And the usher passed him by. And I elbowed him as any good wife would do – you know how that works -- and he just sat there. And I elbowed him a little harder, and he just sat there. And I said, “Aren’t you going to take communion?” and he said, “No.”
So I climbed over Rusty and went up and took communion.
Now afterwards at the reception, there was a couple seated right behind us that we knew, and they let me break in line in front of them for the food. So they said, “We’ll let you break, but you’ve got to tell us one thing, because I noticed you took communion but Rusty didn’t.” I said, “If you’re in the Roman Catholic church, it’s closed communion. If you’re not Catholic, you’re not supposed to take communion. But it was my brother’s wedding, and I know what communion means. I know it’s a sacrament to them and it’s a sacrament to me, and I was going to take communion.”
Well, the woman said she took communion but her husband didn’t, and the reason he said was, “If Rusty’s not taking communion, I’m not taking it either.”
Now I wasn’t going to have a long discussion with Rusty on the fourth pew on the aisle in the Roman Catholic church about why he wasn’t taking communion. But on the way home I said, “Why in the world wouldn’t you take communion? We always say it’s an open table. They never said it was a closed table. They just offered communion. Why didn’t you go up there and take it?”
Rusty said, “I’m not going to do anything where I know I’m not welcome.”
GOD IS RELENTLESS
That’s true of all of us. We’re not going to do anything where we know we’re not welcome. So who will we welcome? As the church universal, we have many barriers that separate us and most of those barriers come down to that question. Who is welcome? Who really is welcome?
Last week at Eugene Peterson’s funeral, his son Leif said his dad had only had one sermon during his 29 years of ministry. For all his books, he only had one message -- words his dad would come and sneak into his room and say over him as he slept at night. Hear these words: God loves you. Say that with me: God loves you. God is on your side. God is coming after you. God is relentless.
Let’s try it again: God loves you. God is on your side. God is coming after you. God is relentless.
As we rejoice this day at this milestone that you have achieved in providing a new place of welcome to the community of Knoxville, may we commit ourselves to sharing every opportunity that profound message of hope. Say it one more time: God loves you. God is on your side. God is coming after you. God is relentless.
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org
* The following paragraphs are derived from “Living the Message: Daily Reflections with Eugene H. Peterson.”
** The following section is from Matthew 9.
For more information:
Nov. 11 service audio, provided by Church Street communications