The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

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Celebrate with the Outsider

A common tool in group gatherings, whether it is a seminar or some other type of discussion, is to use an icebreaker to get the conversation going. The thinking is that asking a fun question can help jump start the discussions and bring everyone closer.

One common icebreaker question is one we have likely all been asked before. That is if we could have dinner with three other people, living or dead, who would it be? The question is often altered based on the needs of the day or the context of the gathering. For instance, since we are in the church if we were to ask that question we may say you couldn’t name Jesus, because we would assume everyone here would want to have dinner with Jesus. No matter who we say we want to have dinner with, our answers tell us a little bit about ourselves and help us to learn more about one another. For the record, the three people I would choose would be Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. I may not talk at that dinner.

The way we answer that question is even more interesting once you start to think about it. The people we name are, typically, people we have already welcomed into our lives. Whether we name political leaders, athletes, or celebrities, the people we would like welcome at our fictitious meal are people whom we like, want to learn from, or want to say, “hey, I ate with that person.” In a way, we want the people who are like us to be around us. Few of us likely would name people like drug addicts, abusers, or the poor as welcomed guests at our dinner table.

I wonder how Jesus would answer our icebreaker question? Who would Jesus invite to fellowship with him around his table? Our passage from Luke 15:1-10 may help us to see how Jesus would answer this question. The people Jesus would eat with are likely not the same people we would want to dine with.

Luke tells us Jesus routinely celebrated with the outsiders of the community. He seldom surrounded himself with society’s elite. Instead, he often dined and socialized with the one’s society had so often ignored and forgotten about. Jesus ate with the poor. He laughed with tax collectors. He conversed with women. Classes of people that society, in Jesus’ time, said were not welcomed in the religious circles and celebrations.

It was Jesus’ interactions with the outsiders that drew the ire of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were highly annoyed that Jesus would “waste his time” with such people. The fact Jesus would fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was often used to discredit Jesus’ earthly ministry. They could not understand how Jesus would associate himself with groups of people God had “clearly” said were not loved.

Jesus wasn’t concerned about their frustrations. It wasn’t going to make him stop. Jesus did something else. He instead showed everyone the depths of God’s love. By associating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus shows us just how amazing God’s love really is. God does not simply love the few, but indeed loves and welcomes all people. Even more, Jesus shows us that God actively goes out and searches for the people society often ignores and welcomes them into the kingdom of God. Here is another amazing piece of truth. God isn’t just doing this so that we may be able to say, “isn’t that nice, God.” The Lord does this so we might go out and do the same today.

God invites us to be people who welcome all people into our communities and fellowship in the name of Christ’s love. We get this picture from Luke 15. Chapter 15 features three parables that are connected to this idea of welcoming the people society believes to be outside of God’s love. They follow what we see from Jesus in the chapter’s first few verses of how he welcomes outsiders into his very own community. When we take a hard look at these parables from Chapter 15 we see that Jesus is about embracing those who society has excluded.

To understand this, we have to understand these dueling ideas of exclusion and embrace. To exclude means to separate ourselves from someone else. Think about exclusion being like a wall. A wall is intended to build separation, whether from rooms or, sadly in the course of human events, different people and cultures. A wall prevents communication and relationships from taking place. That is what happens when we exclude someone from our lives. We are telling them that they are not welcomed in our circles, our homes, our churches, or our lives. We keep ourselves distant from them. This is what the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted with the tax collectors and sinners of their day. They believed that because tax collectors often took more money than they should from people and that sinners were in violation of God’s laws that they should not be welcomed into their lives and in God’s love.

Jesus followed a different path. Jesus is not the Lord of exclusion, but the Lord of embrace. If exclusion is like a wall then embrace is like a big hug. A hug that pulls someone in and welcomes them into our lives and our community. A hug that, with out stretched arms, welcomes in those who were once outside. A hug that closes the distance that our acts of exclusion once created.

Jesus’ entire ministry was about embracing the very people who the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted no part of. When we embrace someone or a community of people we are making them feel loved, wanted, appreciated, and cared for. To embrace means to share God’s love with everyone, regardless of who they are, what they did, what they look like, how old they are, or where they came from. This is the embrace Jesus calls us to, because it is the embrace he lived into in his earthly ministry and continues to live into today. Jesus brought tax collectors into his inner circle. He healed people that were often left to themselves. He allowed women to be involved in his life and within the community. Jesus embraced all people and shared God’s love with all people.

More than this, Jesus also sought after these people. They didn’t just come to him to fellowship and hear his teachings. Jesus went out and sought them. God makes the first move in reaching out to those who are outside our communities. That is the message we can take from the parables of Luke 15:1-10. The parables of people searching for lost items – a sheep and a coin – are symbolic of Christ’s going out and finding those who were lost. Through these parables, Jesus says God reaches out for the people who are not in the community so that they may be welcomed and experience a new relationship and fellowship with the Lord. Jesus goes out and searches for those who are brokenhearted, who are struggling with their finances, who have done things we couldn’t even begin to imagine, and shares with them a hope, a love, and a peace that is beyond all understanding.

As well, Jesus says through the parable, God celebrates with them when they see the love and hope that comes from a relationship with the Lord. God celebrates with the forgotten and the outsider, as they experience a deep transformation and new hope in a relationship with the Lord. Jesus goes out into the world and embraces the people we may not be willing to embrace, shares love with them, and celebrates with them as they are brought into the community and the kingdom of God.

What does this say to us? If anything, I hope it reminds us of our calling to embrace as Christ embraces. As the church, we are called to imitate Christ in all things including making room in our lives, and in our churches, for those who society often rejects. So often the church can be seen as a place of exclusion, where only the selected few (those who look like us) are welcomed to the celebration. This kind of exclusion that we see all across the church today is no where near the love Christ wants us to offer to a hurting and broken world.

As followers of Christ, we are called to make room for the people that we so often believe God could never love. Look around our neighborhood and surrounding region and ask yourself this: Who are the modern day tax collectors and sinners who need to hear that God loves them and so do we? Who are the people in our communities that we so often forget about, believe God could never love, or do not want in our lives? Who do we need to make room for in our hearts, and in our church, so that all people may know the amazing hope of God’s love for them? God calls us not just to recognize that God loves them, but to go out and invite them into our community, our lives, so that they may experience the hope and love of God for themselves.

I know I have not been here long, but it does not take long to learn that Latonia is a community of deep hurts and pains. It is a community filled with many who are often excluded from our lives. There is a mission field all around us. A mission field where we are called to go out, in big and small ways, to share a hope that is embracing, a hope that is forever, a hope that is welcoming of all people. We have a mission field all around us filled with people who have a deep desire and need for the church to come together and search for ways to tell everyone who that God loves them and so do we.

Let us be that church! Let us be the church that is not defined by our exclusions, but our embrace of all people. Let us be the church that is not defined by our separations, but our desire to welcome other. Let us be the church that is not about who is out, but defined by who is welcomed in the kingdom of God. Let us be the church that welcomes all people as God has welcomed us.

Sunday’s Sermon: Welcome the Outsider

We have all seen and enjoyed the classic movie “Forrest Gump.” It is the classic movie of a young man who has some mental disabilities and is trying to make it in an ever-changing world.

One of the movie’s memorable scenes takes place when young Forrest attempts to find a seat on the school bus. It was Forrest’s first day of school. Even though Forrest had lived in his hometown his entire life, he is an outsider who is trying to fit in where there was already established communities and friendships. Forrest unfortunately finds seats that looked open were not really open. Students responded to Forrest with glaring looks and the uninviting words of “seat’s taken” or “you can’t sit here.”

Forrest was given a message no one wants to hear. He was not welcomed into the pre-established communities. The students were in no hurry to welcome him into their circle of friendships. It is really to that community’s disadvantage they didn’t welcome Forrest. As we know, Forrest was a caring and generous person who gave complete devotion to those he cared for. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Forrest in their life? Just imagine how their community would have been strengthened had Forrest been welcomed to sit with them.

That’s not just a statement that analyzes a great movie scene. I think it also speaks to us. What would change in our circle of friendships if we allowed the Forrests of our lives into them? What would happen if the outsider become one of us?

This is what I want us to reflect on as we examine our Gospel passage from John 7:1-10. As we do so, what I want to say and encourage you in is to always reach out and find ways to welcome those who have no community. This goes beyond inviting someone to church. It means to welcome those who have no community, the outsider, the Forrests among us, to be part of our community and friendships.

Luke 7:1-10 may not seem like a passage where we can make this statement. On the surface level, this passage tells of when Jesus heals a Roman officer’s servant in Capernaum, who was suffering from a life-threatening illness. However, when we go deeper into the passage we see there is more to this interaction. It is truly a passage where Jesus reaches out and welcomes an outsider into the community.

The outsider in this story is the Roman officer. He was a Centurion. In the Roman Empire, a Centurion was a military officer who had authority over approximately 100 soldiers. Centurions were known for their integrity. Most of the references to Centurions in Scripture are generally positive. This includes Luke’s mention in Acts 10 of Cornelius, who became the first Gentile to decide to follow Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke is very complimentary of this particular Centurion. He is someone of deep compassion for his sick servant. He is also someone who has heard of Jesus. This perhaps meant that the Centurion had heard reports about Jesus and was trying to wrestle with what this meant for his life. Though Luke uses positive terms to define the Centurion, this doesn’t take away from what the Centurion represented for Luke. He was an officer of the very government that was controlling the people of Israel. He was also likely a Gentile, which, according to the laws of the time, meant that he would not have been welcomed into the community unless he was willing to enter a long conversion process.

This Roman Centurion was not “in” the community. He was an outsider. For this reason, I believe the Centurion represents something that is going on in our culture today. All around us there are people who are hungry for the Gospel, are wrestling with who God is, but feel like an outsider with no community or place to go. They wrestle with the same questions we wrestle with, but they feel as though they have no place to go for strength or support. On any given Sunday, roughly 82 percent of our commonwealth are not in church. They are people we know: Farmers, bankers, mechanics, teachers, business leaders, co-workers, friends, family, and the person who bags our groceries at Kroger. They are searching, seeking, wondering, and questioning who this Jesus is and are looking for a place to belong.

Just like the Centurion, sometimes these very same people reach out to the community looking for answers or help. The Centurion reached out for Jesus knowing that within him is the power to heal. He knew Jesus had authority from heaven to do the wondrous and sought him out with the help of Jewish elders. When Jesus nears the Centurion, Luke says he sends some friends to stop him and to tell him only to speak a word of healing. He humbled himself before the Lord and offered an expression of faith. The Centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal comes from the power given to him from the Father. He trusted in Jesus’ word knowing it had the power of God.

The Centurion felt unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. This is why he sent the Jewish elders and his friends to meet with Jesus and speak for him. However, they felt he was worthy to be in Jesus’ presence. The Jewish elders express to Jesus the virtues not of the servant but of the Centurion. They say he is a man worthy of Jesus’ help. We can assume that the Centurion’s friends likely agreed. The elders say this is because of the Centurion’s love for the Jewish people and that he helped to build a synagogue. In the eyes of the Jewish elders, the Centurion’s good deeds were reason enough for Jesus to help him. It was a position based on what the Centurion had done instead of who he is and desired to be. The Centurion was welcomed by the Jewish elder because of what he had done for them.

We in the church can be like the Jewish elders. The temptation is real for us to define entrance into our communities based upon what someone has done for us. Sometimes our actions articulates a message that says we welcome someone only if certain  “requirements” are met. These might be to have an acceptable job, come from a good family, or dress in a certain way. When we place unspoken requirements upon an outsider in order for them to join our community, what we are really doing is placing a boundary between us and them. Welcoming becomes a tradable commodity when the invitation to join our friendships is only extended when someone does something for us.

Jesus’ welcome is something entirely different. He goes to the Centurion and reaches out to him. In responding to the Centurion’s desire for his servant to be healed, Jesus reaches out to the person who was outside the community and who represented much of what was wrong about the times Jesus lived in. He looked within the Centurion’s heart and saw him for he truly was: A Child of God who was seeking to understand what it meant to follow Jesus. Jesus even takes the Centurion’s statement of faith and says he had not seen any like this in all of Israel. The Centurion, the outsider, understood what many in the community struggled with. That is that Jesus is God.

Jesus welcomed and encouraged the Centurion in his faith and brought him into the community. He healed the servant, but just as important he made the outsider welcomed in the kingdom of God. This is significant because it paved the way for the Gentile ministry Luke will describe in Acts. Those who were once on the outside are now welcomed into a relationship with the Father and the community of the church.

When we think back to that scene from “Forrest Gump” what Jenny does for Forrest reflects what Jesus did for this Centurion. Jenny saw Forrest for who he was and welcomed him into her community. That community was strengthened by what Forrest was able to bring to it. There were no pretenses or requirements. All that existed in their relationship was a desire to grow with one another.

Could you imagine if we welcomed the outsiders around us in the same ways Jesus welcomed the Centurion or Jenny greeted Forrest? All around us there are people who are hungry, seeking, and yearning for a community that will welcome and encourage them in our common journey to grow in Christ’s love. Jesus has given us the way forward. As our communion liturgy reminds us, all who love Jesus, repent of their sin, and seek to live in community with one another are invited to the table of fellowship. Imagine if this was our guide as we seek to welcome all people into our communities and be Christ’s hands and feet each day.

Jesus has welcomed everyone to the kingdom and into the fellowship. Our call is to go out and be those who welcome others, unconditionally, into our hearts, lives, and communities. There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom. There are only those who are seeking community and need the church, to welcome them and say, “yes ‘you can sit here.’”