Come One, Come All, March 24, 2019

Come One, Come All!

Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Palenville and Catskill United Methodist Churches, March 24, 2019

 

It's a great feeling to receive an invitation in the mail, a request from a friend to share time together, to join in a celebration that just wouldn't be the same without you in attendance.  Whether it's a wedding or a birthday party or just an opportunity to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, it's so nice to be asked and to be included.

The 55th chapter of Isaiah is God's invitation to the people of Israel to come back to God as they come back to their land from exile.  Ho, come to the waters!  And you that have no money, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Come, feast, celebrate your freedom, celebrate this gift of life and community you find together. Come!

This is the best sort of invitation, the sort that recognizes who you are and says, yes, it's really you whom I want here.  You who are having a rough time right now, you who are hurting because of loss, you who are worried about tomorrow, you who are afraid that you'll find yourself alone.  You, come and join the feast!  There is a place for you at the table.

This invitation from God is at the heart of Christian faith.  Jesus says, come unto me and I will give you rest.  Paul articulates the good news of the gift of Jesus Christ to the world as grace, an invitation from God to reconciliation and restoration of relationship.  In Christ God is reconciling the world to himself.  Jesus is God's invitation to the world to grasp God's basic being as love and welcome.  And over the centuries, people have heard this invitation and have come.  It's not the only legacy the church has in our civilization, but it is part of it.  Yes, there is certainly abuse of power and corruption in the institution of the church, in its history and in its present manifestation.  And there is grace and love and invitation and welcome as well.  People respond to the good news of open invitation.  People who have felt left out and forgotten have found welcome and community in the church for generations and generations.    I have a friend from seminary who told me her mom ended up here in Catskill as an unwanted orphan from The Bronx with her aunt after her mom died.  My friend said the high point of her mom’s time in Catskill was a family from the Methodist church who claimed her as a friend and made her feel welcome and loved.  I was delighted to hear that story, even if it was of Catskill Methodists over sixty years ago.  Christian welcome is a good thing. That same welcome, however, is at the core of the challenges the church faces and has faced.  Because the invitation has not only caught the interest of the people those already in the church hoped would hear, it has also often caught the heart of people whom church folk wouldn't otherwise choose to be with at all. 

The early church began among Jews, the people of God, Jesus' own people, who already knew God and knew of God's goodness and loving kindness.  Then others heard of the grace and love and fellowship and wanted in.  Peter and Paul both wrestled with the challenge of expanding the church to include Gentiles, people beyond the boundary of God's people.  Much of the growing edge of the church in the early decades of its existence was where gospel met Gentile culture and figured out how to make sense of it all.  And the church grew, and the grace of God filled it. 

Eventually the church hooked up with the power of the state and was imposed on the hearts and lives of people, but grace was not lost.  It lived on in the Word, in the practice of those who wanted to live the gospel fully, in the hearts of those who still chose to build their lives on love and not fear. 

Centuries later, in the early years of this nation, European Christians who had settled brought slaves from Africa to work in their fields and in their homes.  The slaves did not know Jesus Christ; they had other faiths, other gods whom they worshiped.  They brought some of their religious practices with them.  And they were exposed to the gospel, the good news of grace, God's free gift of love and welcome and forgiveness.  It wasn't always shared openly; it wasn't always presented purely and without prejudice; but the gracious invitation to life and love came through, and the slaves found hope and power at the heart of the gospel.  In spite of the fact that the slave-owners themselves had minimized the freedom inherent in the gospel in order to rationalize owning slaves at all, the truth of God’s grace came through and claimed the hearts and minds of those who were enslaved. Many of the Christians who had first settled here weren't expecting to welcome the slaves into their fellowship, but the grace of God broke open the gospel.  The Christian practice and worship and music of the people who experienced slavery, and the churches they left behind them, has had a transformative effect on the church of the past few centuries in this country.  John Wesley baptized two African slaves in 1758, breaking the color barrier in Methodism, and at the Christmas Conference in 1784, when the Methodist Episcopal church began here in the U.S., black men, former slaves, were qualified as preachers of the gospel alongside white men.  Come one, come all!  (It took longer to welcome women into the pulpits, but we got there, too.) White American Christians didn't always welcome the slaves into the churches, but the good news of God's welcome broke down the dividing walls of hostility, just as the writer of Ephesians proclaimed centuries earlier, and the church has grown and flourished because of it.  Come one, come all! 

Today the church still struggles.  The United Methodist Church just decided a month ago to double down on our official exclusion of gay men and lesbians from our pulpits.  To our credit, the New York Annual Conference also doubled down, just last Saturday, on their insistence that we will seek to discern the blessing of God’s spirit on all who hear the call to ministry, regardless of their sexual orientation.  Bishop Bickerton declared his ‘unwavering support for the LGBTQI community’ at last week’s Annual Conference session. 

I have friends who aren’t part of the church at all.  They are baffled.  Why is this an issue, they ask.  And since it’s an issue, why do gay people, and you and others who love gay people, stay?

Why don't lesbians and gay men just walk away from the institution of the church that is often hateful and nasty and unloving toward them?  It’s a good question, a valid question.

The answer that I have heard most often expressed is that the good news is still good news, even if it is spoken by people who haven't yet grasped all that it might mean.  God's word to gay men and lesbians is just as welcoming as it is to anyone else:  Come to the waters, come as you are, come to the feast and sit by my side and rest and enjoy.  You are welcome, you are mine, you are part of my love and my life.  Bishop Bickerton was so obviously heartbroken at the pain that so many are experiencing after this General Conference.  In response to a question from the floor about what to tell one’s granddaughter about the UMC, he spoke of his appreciation for Methodist theology. “We have the best theology there is,” he said.  “Grace. Holiness. Grace. Prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace.”  It’s what we’ve got.  It’s all we’ve got, at least all we’ve got worth claiming.  As Methodists, as Christians, as God-followers, we are recipients and purveyors of grace. God’s free gift of love.  Wine and milk and forgiveness offered without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread or your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Why are you looking for anything else?  Why are we seeking some other God who will chastise us, or better, chastise and exclude others, for not living up to our arbitrary standards?  Our God loves us and simply calls us to come, to experience grace and be willing to let it change us, and then to go out into the world to offer that same free grace to others.  Instead we come up with rules and walls to separate us from each other and prove we’re right and they’re wrong.  We end up almost drowning out God’s call to come.  But the offer still echoes into the world.  Come, buy what you need without money and without price.  Come!

It is a compelling invitation.  It is what we all long to hear, the word that brings so many of us to the church, to the community of God's people.  It is abundant welcome, and it is offered by God to all, poor and rich, black and white, gay and straight, women and men, children and octogenarians, people from Leeds, people from Brooklyn, residents of Mumbai and Warsaw and Rome and Bogotá. To all, all, all God says, Come! 

And so we come, we who are thirsty for love and grace, hungry for fellowship and forgiveness.  We who are from all walks of life and from many sides of town.  We who may have preferences for whom we eat with, but who are willing to set those aside because we want to be here, at God's table, and we remember that God loves people whom we struggle with. 

It’s why we offer community breakfast here with pancakes and bacon and coffee.  It's why we serve banana bread at coffee hour after worship and have dinners for fellowship and joy.

It's why we gather at this table often, knowing we are not alone, but that we join sisters and brothers in Christ all over the world when we come to communion.  We practice welcome and invitation.  We're still working at it.  There are plenty of our neighbors who haven't heard our invitation clearly, neighbors who see barriers and gates and requirements to be met before they can come.  We will work on eliminating those barriers, so we can more clearly manifest God's welcoming ways.  Because the word of God still rings out:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!

 

Isaiah 55:1-9

55Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Psalm 63 (UMH 788)

1O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

2So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

3Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

4So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

5My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

6when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

7for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

8My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

First Corinthians 10:1-13

10I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9

13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”