Sunday, October 4, 2015
The recent visit from Pope Francis has been a reminder that the church has hurt people. The Catholic Church has been in the news more publically for its stance on issues like homosexuality, abortion, and divorce, as well as of course the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse scandals. It’s easy to point fingers at another church body and say what’s wrong with them. But we as Lutherans need to recognize that our church, even OUR congregation here at Bethel has hurt people intentionally and unintentionally by our words and actions, or inactions at times, too. Like any individual, the church does not always act in the way we would expect followers of Christ to act or respond to human need and suffering. Can you think of someone you know who’s been hurt by the church? Maybe you yourself have been hurt by the church in the past, or by something a fellow Christian said.
In today’s gospel, two sayings come to mind that have been misused by well-meaning people to hurt others: the first is misusing the words we say at most weddings, from the mouth of Jesus himself: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” And the second is how we treat the youngest and most vulnerable in our church: “children should be seen and not heard.” This morning, Jesus draws our attention to just two of the ways we fail as humans to live up to God’s expectations for us: divorce and neglect of children. God calls us to be in relationship with others, and we mess those relationships up. We hurt each other – we hurt our spouse, our families, our children, we hurt fellow members of the body of Christ we call the church, and we hurt those outside of the church because we fail to share the good news.
At first read, you might be wondering why Jesus seems to randomly jump from talking about divorce to exhorting us to welcome children in today’s gospel. I definitely wondered what the two had to do with each other. At least today, I think that the common connection boils down to how we welcome or fail to welcome those who are less than perfect into a less than perfect church. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them,” Jesus says, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Do not stop them, Jesus says! Unfortunately, we in the church have adopted rules just like the Pharisees to keep people out of the church rather than welcome them in and share the good news that ANYONE can come to Jesus, regardless of what they have done. Faith is not about what we do but about what God has done for us. It is the core of our Lutheran witness that we believe that no one is too messed up for God’s forgiveness. Yet when we start getting down to the hard work of welcoming EVERYONE into God’s kingdom, we quickly get into making exceptions, don’t we?
One of those groups that I have heard from firsthand as a pastor is people who are divorced. Some people have been turned away from receiving communion because they are divorced. Others have told me about going to their pastor for counseling; which is a very healthy thing, by the way, as divorce is the second most stressful life event to go through apart from the death of a spouse. Instead of offering support and healing to move forward, the pastor has condemned or blamed the person going through the divorce – even though the marriage was dysfunctional, not healthy, or even abusive. Jesus is clear in today’s gospel – we ought not take divorce or marriage lightly. But we could also ask, is it OK to separate something that God clearly would not have put together – in the cases of abuse, adultery, and unhealthy hurtful relationships? For those of us who are married, do we look down on those who are divorced as if we’ve never made a bad decision or broken other relationships, as though we’re somehow better in the eyes of God because of our marital status? While Jesus clearly desires for us healthy, lifelong marriages, Jesus never equates the divorce of two people to mean that God also divorces from being in relationship with them, so to speak. God will never leave us or forsake us – so why do we in the church suggest by our actions or attitudes that God has?
God’s welcome is a lot bigger than ours is. Let them come to me – the divorced, the felons, the alcoholics, the poor – you name it, Jesus says. Do not stop them. But what about the children? We LOVE children, right? We’re so happy to have them, especially when our congregation tends to be older. As long as we can still hear the sermon. And as long as they sit quietly and don’t move around too much during worship. As long as they sit in the back so they don’t distract others. Is that what we want the primary message for our children to be? Church is about sitting still and being quiet, or about growing in a deeper knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ? I don’t hear Jesus asking these children to be quiet and sit in the back at all in today’s gospel. Instead, Jesus puts them front and center, embracing them while some of the disciples grumble.
At one of the first congregations I served, the council had a vision for adding on a bigger fellowship space, which would include a place for a nursery, space that the current building didn’t have. Being a historic older church building, of course, this idea was controversial. And we heard the standard things like, “I brought my three kids to church every Sunday and never needed a nursery!” Until one brave woman in her ‘80s stood up and said, “You know, I brought my kids to church every Sunday, too, but I remember trying to hold on to all four of them, keep them quiet, and navigate those narrow walkways with my giant diaper bag because there was no place to put it. There was no good place to change a diaper if one of them needed a diaper change. I always came home exhausted and I don’t think I really heard a sermon for years. I could’ve used a nursery, and I’m sure some of our families today could, too.” Her comments changed the mood of the room – suddenly, it seemed like a good idea to most of the congregation to have a nursery. We were talking a lot about wanting to attract more young families, but our words and actions weren’t reflecting that we were serious about welcoming children even if they were noisy or their parents didn’t use the same distraction techniques of the past.
Jesus calls out our hardness of heart in hurting other people in our relationships today. We do that in our failure to nurture healthy marriages – we do that with other family relationships, we do that with our own children, and we certainly have been guilty of hardness of heart in the church. We stop people from encountering the love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus because of our own judgments. We easily condemn others for bad parenting, bad relationship decisions, or bad life choices, forgetting to look at ourselves and our own less than ideal behavior. But as God’s children, Jesus welcomes us with open arms, offering us forgiveness and life. God in Jesus Christ is always calling us back into relationship with him, and God’s greatest desire is to help us foster healthy relationships with one another, too. We as a church, then, can tell a different story than the negative ones we hear on the news – we are a people that welcomes all who want to grow closer in relationship to Jesus and each other – regardless of your past, regardless of what you’ve done. May all of us who have experienced the loving embrace of Jesus be bold enough to share that with others, welcoming them with open arms. Amen.