One of the cool things about wearing a collar around in public is the very interesting conversations that I get to have with total strangers. For me in particular, many of the questions are not just about being a priest, but also about my gender. Most people come from religious traditions that have not exposed them to female priests, and so they have all sorts of interesting questions – and to be honest, I think most of them are trying to figure out if the Roman Catholic Church started ordaining women without them noticing.
But once we get past the surface stuff, I usually end up asking them about their own faith experiences. All sorts of emotions flit across peoples’ faces – from discomfort, to mistrust, to guilt, to simply hesitancy. Just this week I had a long conversation with a woman at Staples who had a cemetery connection to St. Margaret’s; but as soon as I asked her about what church she currently attends, the stammering and eye-contact avoiding began. I was truthfully just trying to see if the woman could use a church home, but I think she interpreted my question as judgment. These kinds of reactions happen to me a lot, and I think the reason is that people have a lot of assumptions about church based on past experiences or even stereotypes. There is a sense that they need to have their life more together before they even darken the door of a church; that certain people will not be accepted in church; that if they do not agree with everything that others believe they will not be welcomed; or that church is full of a bunch of hypocrites. There is even a video that we posted on our Facebook page this week about the reasons people give for not coming to church, and all those fears and suspicions are articulated with vulnerability and honesty.
So on this “Welcome Back Sunday,” as we think about what the church is and who belongs, who do we get in our Scripture readings today? First, Jeremiah tells us of a people so far steeped in sinfulness, that refuses to repent and return to God, being utterly destroyed. If you remember, God invited Israel back into covenant relationship in our lesson last week – to be molded into a new people by the potter. But the people did not listen, and now their sinfulness and unwillingness to return to God has led to judgment. Then, in our Epistle lesson to Timothy, we hear about Paul, an apostle who admits that he was once the most horrible persecutor of believers in Christ. If you remember, Paul used to be named Saul. He was a faithful Jew who was persecuting the Christians because he believed them to be proclaiming a false Messiah. Only after his dramatic conversion experience does he become Jesus’ apostle. Finally, in our Gospel lesson, we hear about a sheep that has wondered off from the flock. Though the shepherd has 99 other sheep to worry about, he leaves them in the wild to find the one that is lost. If I had to pick three people to feature for an advertising campaign for the church, whose attractive features I could promote as being representative of the appealing nature of the church, I doubt the Israelites, Paul, or the lost sheep would be on the top of my list!
Of course, that is the funny thing about churches. As much as we want people to know that all are welcome, we also are always trying to put our best foot forward. We do choose pictures of happy, young, diverse people in our advertising because we want people to believe that we are all those things. And in some ways those things are true, certainly of St. Margaret’s. We are a group of people who are happy to be here, and we do have young families and some diversity. But what our glossy advertising glosses over is that we are also all humans here. We all have our flaws, and we all fall into separation from God and from one another at times. There have been times when each person in this room, like the Israelites, has fallen so far into sinfulness or separation from God that we do not even know how to begin to make our way back. There have been times when we have been as hateful and judgmental as Paul – at times our hatefulness directed toward others; or worse, at times our hatefulness directed toward ourselves.[i] And there have certainly been times when each of us has wandered away from the flock – maybe because we just could not relate to church anymore, maybe because we were hurt by or angry at the church, or maybe because life just got the best of us.
We sometimes think about church as having insiders and outsiders. Even in the gospel lesson, we see that division. At the beginning of the gospel lesson, we hear the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling about how Jesus welcomes the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus spends the rest of the lesson explaining that insiders or outsiders are totally different in Christ. In fact, when that one lost sheep is found what happens? A party! Now, if we had been the shepherd, and if we had even considered the ridiculousness of leaving 99 healthy sheep at risk, our next response upon finding the sheep might have been to scold or punish the sheep. Or if losing the sheep had been our fault, we might have been privately relieved upon the sheep’s return or quietly told a few close family members.[ii] But no, this shepherd shouts on the mountaintop and invites all the neighbors in to celebrate. A party ensues because in Jesus’ world, every person is important, valued, and loved – no matter where they are or where they have been.
When I was in high school – I know this might surprise you – but I was a bit of nerd. Although I developed a wide variety of friends, I never quite felt like I fit in wholly to any one particular group. I sort of patched together a network of friends, but no one group make me feel fully accepted and like I could be fully myself. One summer, I went away to a six-week program that gathered talented high school students from all over the state. My focus area was math, but other focus areas included literature, choral music, art, Spanish, and dance. I left home that summer not knowing anyone who would be in the program, and yet as the summer went on, I found like I had found a place where I belonged. Finally, I was meeting people like myself, who also felt slightly off from the rest of their high school classmates, who introduced me to all sorts of music, expression, and life. I came back for that following school year knowing that I still did not have a group like that at high school, but there were people out there who knew me and loved me fully. That sense of belonging, and total acceptance kept me going for years to come.
As I think back to that summer at Governor’s School, I realize that they taught me what church, at its best, is really like. At church, all are welcomed in – the person thought to be beyond saving, the judgmental persecutor, and the one who feels lost or who has strayed away. But those descriptions do not fit just one person. The truth is we have all been each of those persons at some point in our lives – and I am sorry to break the news to you – but we will all be each of those persons again at some point in our lives. Sometimes we are the lost person who will be feted, and sometimes we are the flock or the neighbors who will celebrate someone being found. In fact, the reason why we can be those celebrating is because we know the feeling of being the one who is celebrated. Because the roles are ever shifting, we know what the experiences are like on all sides.
That is the beauty of a church community. We are all welcome because we have all been, are currently being, or will be in the future in any of the roles we hear about in Scripture today. And the party just is not the same without each one of us there. That party is the same party we hold every week, when we gather around the Eucharistic table, having confessed our sins, having embraced one another at the peace, and then gathering around the table to receive the celebratory food of Christ – knowing fully that each of us is welcome no matter where we are on the journey – because we have all been there. Amen.