This is the second sermon in a series on The Embracing Church
“Okay, guys. It’s time to choose sides…”
Those words are part of a ritual that has been a part of our lives almost from the beginning. It is a ritual that has been seen again and again in countless gyms, on schoolyards, and pretty much any place where kids gather to play. And, even though it seems like simply a way to decide who will be on what team, there is an order to how things are done, a way of doing things that rarely changes, no matter where we are.
It begins with the captains, the people who get to choose. With few exceptions, the captains tend to be the most popular and the most vocal of the group. They may not be the best players of the game, but they are the ones who talk themselves up the most and generally they are the best liked kids around, and the ones who pretty much determine what is cool and what isn’t.
Then comes the choosing, a ritual with rules that seem to have been around since God created the heavens and the earth.
“I’ll choose Charley,” the first captain says. It’s not at all surprising, for Charley is the best athlete of any kid on the field. Charley is likely going to college on a football scholarship, and there isn’t a sport that he doesn’t play well. There isn’t a kid in all the country that wouldn’t pick Charley first.
“Okay,” says the other captain, “I’ll take Sue.” Sue is the star of her school’s basketball team, tall and lanky, and another great athlete.
The choosing goes on from there, with each captain assessing who will help their team win the game, and then choosing the best talent available. But then, almost before you know it, they come to the end of pool, and there standing before them are those kids that no one wants.
“You can have him,” one of the captains says to the other. “Him” is a boy named John. He’s a large boy, in every way, fat and slow, with almost no athletic aptitude. He means well and wants to play, but whenever the ball comes his way, he is almost sure to drop it . . . or worse.
“Man…” the other says, “…okay, but you have to take them.” “Them is a couple of kids with Coke bottle glasses. One is tall and skinny. The other is about a foot shorter than the rest of the kids. Someday, in the future, they will grow up to be Gods in the world of Silicon Valley, computer geeks with beautiful women on their arms after they’ve made a couple of million on the company they sold. But the schoolyard doesn’t recognize what they will become, and only knows that they aren’t very good and are as much a liability as an asset.
Every now and then, there will are some kids who fall even lower on the social ladder. These are the untouchables, the outcasts, the ones who can’t even get picked to play in right field. “Sorry,” the captains say, “but we’ve already got a full team. Go somewhere else. These are the persons who can’t get picked no matter what they do, and they are forced to sit on the sidelines and watch the others have their fun, wondering if there will ever be a chance where they might get to play as well.
Yes, it is a ritual of childhood, one that is part of what it means to be a kid. And yet, it is a ritual that follows us into adulthood as well, influencing how we approach the world and how we approach others. For, as we go through lives, we often find ourselves picking and choosing, determining who we want and who we don’t in various ways. Yes, there are some who we embrace, putting our arms around and pulling close. But like captains on a schoolyard, the dirty little secret is that there are others who we exclude, others who are forced to sit on the sidelines of our lives, and who desperately need love and acceptance. We often act not as people of embrace, but people of exclusion . . . and often we aren’t even aware of it.
There is a power in naming the places where we fall short of God’s ideal for us. That is after all, what the prophet Nathan was doing that day when he confronted David about his sin. David, as we all know, had engaged in the sin of adultery. Even worse, when the evidence of his act began to show, he sent the husband of his affections to his death on the battlefield, an act of cold blooded murder. By the time Nathan comes to visit, David has deluded himself into recognizing what he has done, and so God calls Nathan to give David a stark reminder. It wasn’t pleasant. It was probably not something that David or Nathan wanted to do. But God knew that it was necessary for David’s heart to be changed, and naming our sins is likewise necessary for our own repentance and transformation. To name is to help us recognize, so that we can move beyond where we are today and we attempt to follow in the way of Jesus.
I want to take a minute or two to do some naming about how we exclude other children of God both in the church and in the world. For most of us, it isn’t because we are bad people, intentionally wanting the worst for others. Rather, the ways we exclude are often as ingrained in our ways of being in the world as the ritual of choosing sides. They are the way we function, because that is how we’ve always functioned. It’s only when someone shows us the way that we have the power to change the rules and do something new.
In thinking about this, I believe that there are three primary ways that we exclude others from our lives, our communities, and worst of all, from the church. Certainly there are other ways to evaluate how we function in the world, and my categories are not perfect, but they provide a framework for thinking about who we leave on the sidelines.
The first way that we exclude is what I call Socio-Economic Exclusion. You see, there are those whom we cast to the margins of our lives based on their socio-economic status, what we sometimes call in this country their social class. Socio-Economic exclusion is the setting of boundaries in our lives which keep us separate from the poor of the world, using prosperity and class as a way of defining others.
There are all sorts of dynamics as to why we sometimes push folks who differ from us in our means to the margins of our lives. Some of it is the discomfort of seeing others who suffer and the fear that we too might find ourselves far down the ladder economically. However a great deal of our antipathy for the poor and outcast of our world derives what is often known as the “Protestant Work Ethic.” This belief was first shared by the Puritans, and basically says that it is an article of faith that if one works hard and with diligence they we prosper financially. According to the Protestant Work Ethic, poverty must be a character flaw based in laziness and the inability to work hard enough. After all, we say, doesn’t the Bible say that “God helps those who help themselves?”
But of course, the Bible doesn’t in fact say that. The New Testament is clear that people of faith have a special responsibility to the poor, and that poor people will always be a part of our lives. Jesus understood that poverty is often rooted in the structures of the day designed to make the rich richer, and to keep the poor in their place.
“But preacher,” some are probably saying, “I don’t exclude poor people. I help out at Community Care or Room in the Inn. I do what I can to help those in need.”
It’s true that many of us engage in charity with the poor, offering to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. However the way that the church excludes is to focus on charity at the expense of relationship. Many of us would go to the church to feed the homeless at Room in the Inn, but we would be far less likely to have one of the homeless guys come home with us for dinner. Even less likely would be the possibility that we might join that homeless man for a meal in the place that he hangs out. We are willing to reach out to a point, but only when we can keep folks at arms length, and are reluctant to get too close to those in need.
The church is likewise guilty of excluding the poor. We see it in our patterns of starting new congregations – both in the UMC and among other traditions. We almost never “plant” a new congregation in a location with a lot of poor folks, a location that probably has a lot of need for Christ. Instead, we look for communities of wealth, communities that have means for support so that they can quickly finance the needs of the church. In the Nashville area, probably two thirds of the new churches started in the past ten years have been located in Franklin and Brentwood, communities of great wealth and status. To my knowledge there have been almost no churches started in any poor communities throughout the city.
Socio-Economic exclusion is exclusion by status. It is exclusion that may be temporary, based on where are person sits today, but no matter how and when, it is exclusion just the same.
There is another way that we exclude persons different from us from the game. It is what I call Exclusion by Identity. This is exclusion based on one’s God given identity, be it the color of our skin, our God given sex, our national heritage, or even things like our age, body shape, and physical abilities. This form of exclusion is based on physical characteristics as well as sociological definitions – things that are a part of us an not easily (if ever) changed. This form of exclusion is well documented in society, and we have words to identify the various forms of this type, words like racism, sexism, and ageism. It represents the attempts to stereotype others based in who God created them to be.
There was a time when this type of exclusion was overt, represented by a bigotry that declared others as less than equal because of their identity. These days this form of exclusion is likely to be much more subtle, found in the ways that we differentiate between “us” and “them.” Identity exclusion is quick to buy into stereotypes, and the church is as guilty as anyone. So we explain away our lack of diversity by saying that “those people…” (anyone who isn’t like us) “worship in a different way and wouldn’t want to be with us anyway.” This is the exclusion that justifies Martin Luther King’s statement that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America rather than weeping over the divisions we face. This form of exclusion attempts to keep people “in their place,” be they African Americans, Hispanics, women, or old people.
For many of us, it isn’t so much that we want to exclude others, but rather we simply don’t know how to, or are afraid to embrace. We know that we should invite our neighbors who are different from us to dinner, but we don’t know the proper protocols for their community, and so we simply avoid trying to learn and grow in our relationships with others. We keep things on a formal level, but we rarely let others who are different connect with the deep places of our lives. There is a sense of walking on eggshells that makes us nervous and while we know that we need to be more embracing, we instead continue in our old ways, perpetuating the continued separation in our land.
There are other ways that we exclude others. If we had more time today we would look at Theological and Ethical exclusion, a form of exclusion based in the beliefs of others. But in any case, the fact remains that we continue to exclude others from our lives, our church, and our world. We continue to fall prey to the stereotypes and stories that keep others in their place, rituals of choosing and excluding that leave people on the sidelines in pain. It isn’t something that we want to do, but the rituals have been with us for a long time and it is hard to move to new ways of being.
I say this not to make everyone feel bad or guilty. Like all of you, I want to walk out of church nourished and refreshed, charged up for the coming week. To talk about the places I fall short isn’t fun . . . but it’s necessary for unless we name our sin, unless we identify our shortcomings, then we are doomed to repeat our mistakes for the rest of our lives.
The good news is that we are not condemned to live this way for the rest of our lives. While David was forced to live with the legacy of his sin, seeing the death of his first born and the decline of his children, we have been given the power of Metanoia—transformation. In the naming of sin and giving it to God, we are given the possibility of living in a new way, turning from our old ways of exclusion and toward God’s way of embrace. This power throws aside the ritual of choosing sides, expecting that those at the end of the line will be picked first, for after all, the last shall be first . . . right? For that matter, life in the kingdom of God is such that there will be no more choosing, for all are welcome equally, fast kids and slow kids, athletic kids and braining kids, fat kids and skinny kids, poor kids and rich kids, black and red and yellow and brown kids, boys and girls, old and young . . . everyone who has been created by God . . . everyone that is . . . has and is being welcomed into the game, a game of joy and laughter, a game of peace and hope, a game in which all are equally embraced.
A few years ago there was a fad of jewelry and clothing focused on the question: What would Jesus do?
May we instead leave here today asking the question: Who would Jesus pick? And then, with that question answered, may we act likewise.