Surprise! You are included! – By Dave Holmes

Scripture reading: John 6: 1-15 and Ephesians 3: 14-21

Our son spent a couple of years in Boston, and while he was there, somewhat to my surprise, he joined a church!  The story’s a good one.

He was working to develop a social circle in a new city, and he decided to try going to church.  His roommate at the time was a Unitarian divinity student, so he asked Sean if there was any buzz around the divinity school about a good church.  Sean asked around, and replied that First Church Congregational was supposed to be pretty good.  A bit of an older crowd, he said, and a bit stuffy.  But good preaching and music.  So Jonathan punched in First Church into his Google map, hopped on his bike, and off he went.

He said later that the thing he didn’t know was that every church in Boston is called “First Church.”  So instead of going to First Church Cambridge, he went to First Church Somerville, in the adjacent neighborhood.

The church was a bit rundown.  Paint was peeling a bit in the sanctuary, and there weren’t too many people in worship.  As he looked, he thought, “this doesn’t actually look like an older crowd.”  There were a lot of 20 somethings.  And then came the announcements, in which a bit event for next Sunday was announced – the second annual Drag Gospel Sunday.  “Not too stuffy, either,” he thought!   And he was welcomed enthusiastically, and the worship was good, so…

Home he went, and showed the bulletin to his roomie.

“Wrong church,” said Sean – “but we’re ALL going next Sunday!!!”

Which they did.  Now that same Sunday was someone else’s first Sunday at First, someone who became one of Jonathan’s friends.  She is a lesbian, and had grown up in a conservative Christian family.  When she came out, she was disowned by her parents and her church, and vowed in her hurt and anger never to darken the door of a church again.  A friend of hers invited her to First – she didn’t mention the “Church” part, just invited her to a drag queen event.  When she arrived, she was incensed.  “Wait a minute,” she said, “this is a CHURCH!   You tricked me into coming to a church!”  But then she looked at the drag queens up front and said, “wait a minute…  this is a church?  A church worship service?”

The service was fun.  The sermon talked about the height, and the depth, and the breadth, and the length of the love of God.  The minister talked about how the Spirit of God had brought folks to the church who were part of the LGBTQ community, and how much stronger the church was because of their involvement.  She talked about how the Spirit had brought some drag queens to church, and how much more fabulous the church was, because of the gifts and life they brought.

The young woman who had been tricked into coming to church felt something at First Church, she felt something that she had known all along, I think, but it broke her open, tears streaming down her face, to have it confirmed.

  • She’d always known, I think, that her family was wrong to reject her.
  • She’d always known, somewhere deep down, that the church was wrong to reject her.
  • She heard the gospel that morning, the gospel she already knew deep down somewhere, that God did not reject her because she was lesbian.
  • She heard those gospel words addressed to her that morning:  “you are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Sometimes I think that WE think love ought to be conditional.  That we need to straighten folks up before we should love them.  That loving somehow prevents growth or change.  Not true.

It is not judgment that changes us, it is love.

Children thrive in an atmosphere of love.  Addicts find recovery only when they find that amazing combination of honesty and acceptance, truth and love.

Everything we are and everything we do at Knox is, grounded in this love of God, this love that is always more inclusive than our comfort allows.  Everything is grounded in this love of God that finds us, heals us, and makes new life possible.

So… have you been touched?  Have you heard that gospel addressed to you in particular, to the deep down honest and true you?

For this reason I bow the knee before the Holy One, praying that each one of us and all of us together might be strengthened in our deepest souls, and that Christ may dwell in each of us by faith.  I pray that each one of us and all of us together might know in our hearts and our lives the breadth, the length, the height and the depth of the love of God, that love that surpasses knowledge and even hope.  And I pray that we may be filled with the fullness of God, more so than we could even ask or imagine.

The tricked young woman joined the church on the same day that our son Jonathan joined, I think.  When I went to visit him a few months later, I discovered that she was involved, on a committee, and my son – my 24 year old son – was chairing the hospitality committee at this church.  Overseeing coffee volunteers.  Holy smokes, I thought!  What is happening at this church?

The congregation was, to say the least, eclectic.

Street people, students, young couples, a few more established folks, fewer still seniors.  There were no full time employees of the church.  The building was older, and not well kept – the carpet color was… distressing.  Paint was peeling from the walls and bits of plaster were occasionally actually falling from the ceiling of the sanctuary.   Lots of challenges.  And yet there were these brand new young people, people who were supposed to avoid church and especially church committees, pitching right in.

Cut to a hillside by the sea of Galilee.

There is an enormous crowd surrounding Jesus and a group of very harried, very tired disciples.  This is a miracle story you’re about to hear, and I don’t know what you think about miracle stories.  Hold the scientific doubts in suspension for a moment, perhaps.  This story, or a version of it, is told in every gospel.  In all, variations on this story are told six times in four gospels.  There is something very, very important about this story!

There’s the crowd, there are the harried disciples, and Jesus perks up and says, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea!  Let’s feed all these people some supper!”   Philip looks around (Philip was on the Finance Committee) and says, “six months wages would not buy enough for all these people to get a taste!  Get serious, Jesus!”  Ever helpful (but impractical – he was probably on the Social Justice committee) Andrew says, “here’s a young fellow who has five rolls and a couple of dried fish.  But what is that among so many?”

“Make the people sit down,” says Jesus.  Eventually, it’s done.  Enough people to fill this church maybe seven times over.  Imagine it!  And Jesus takes these five small loaves of bread, and two dried fish (middle eastern travelling food) – not enough even for United Church communion! – he gives thanks and passes them around.

How it happens is not important!

None of the storytellers spend a second on how this thing happens.  Someone offers what they have – a totally inadequate offering, given the challenges – and Jesus accepts the offering, gives thanks, and … the supposedly meagre offering proves to be more than enough.  And in a variety of forms, this story is told more than any other story in Scripture.

Everyone eats and has plenty.  And Jesus has his disciples pick up the leftovers – he always pays attention to left out and left over – and it amounts to more than the original offering.

In August, at General Council, the United Church will debate major, major changes to the denominational structure.  Why?  We can’t afford the structures we have.  The task is bigger than the resources.  Five thousand to feed, and only five loaves and two fish to do it.

In local churches, we consider the huge challenge of turning around demographic trends, growing and living as a church in a culture that seems to be rejecting us.  We’re so few, we think – how are we ever going to get it all done?   The task is bigger than our resources.

10 years to end homelessness, ten years to reduce poverty significantly.  These are huge complex tasks; how can we succeed, against the inertia of a whole society?   The challenge is well beyond our resources.

And from somewhere inside me, I hear God whispering, “business as usual.”  Offer what you have, into the hands of Jesus.  Give thanks.  Let it loose, and pay attention.  You just might find yourself amazed.

On bad days, we think that God may be love, but we’re probably not included.  On bad days, we think that we, and maybe others, need to measure up before we can love or be loved.

But that’s not what Jesus teaches.

Jesus teaches that each and every one of us is already beloved, loved beyond our wildest dreams.  And it is this love, this trust, this confidence, that gives us the encouragement to change, to grow, to become all we can be.  We don’t have to measure up in order to be loved.  We will eventually measure up, because we are loved.

On bad days, we think there’s not enough to go around.  Interesting, I heard of a poll in which a variety of people from all walks of life and all income levels were asked, how much money do you need to live well?  There was astonishing agreement on the answer.  The answer was “a little bit more.”

On bad days, we think our resources are inadequate to the task.  But that’s not what Jesus teaches.  Jesus teaches us that we live in a world of incredible abundance, that when we freely offer ourselves, the return is flat out amazing.  There is something about generosity and community together that multiplies resources like crazy.

Let’s pray:

Touch us, O Holy God, with that love of yours that heals the broken soul and makes our spirits sing.  Touch us, O Holy God, with that generosity and community of yours, that multiplies resources until all are fed and to spare.  Enliven us, that we may in turn bring your love and life to the communities around us.  AMEN.

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