Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 6, 2021
Mark 3:20-35 “Keep Church Weird”
“Whoever you are and wherever you are along life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That promise became the motto of the UCC back in the 90s I think. Nearly every UCC church I have attended says that line at some point during the worship service, and I try to do so each week here. Like so many things we say regularly in worship, I do at times worry that it has lost its significance, or that we don’t pay enough attention to what it means. So, listen to it again: “Whoever you are and wherever you are along life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Everyone, everyone is welcome just as they are into the life of the United Church of Christ, just as they are. There are no standards, no rules, no criteria that must be met before someone is fully welcomed into our denomination, our church. You don’t have to look a certain way, believe a certain way, act a certain way. “Whoever you are and wherever you are along life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
The United Church of Christ has expanded the definition of welcome and membership further than many, if not most, religious traditions. This is a source of tremendous pride for us, as it should be. I have noticed, however, that many people – especially those who have been hurt by church or communities of faith – treat our unapologetic welcome with a bit of suspicion. I remember, very soon after I started here, someone wanted to meet to talk about our outreach and welcome of the LGBT community here in Winona. Our rainbow flag had just been hung up outside, which was done as a visual reminder to everyone that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. I assumed this person who wanted to meet with me would see that and be assured that we would be a safe community to partner with – but she saw it and was suspicious. “Was our rainbow flag really a rainbow flag?” she wanted to know, or a trick of some kind? Was everyone really welcome here? I was able to easily assure her that, yes, everyone is welcome here, but I was caught off guard by her initial suspicion.
I shouldn’t have been though. People have always questioned those who expand the definition of who is a part of a community and who reach out to include people that the rest of society has cast aside. We see that in the scripture lesson we read today, Jesus had already begun his ministry and was creating a diverse community. He had healed people deemed unworthy of healing. He had called disciples who were not the religious elite. He had said that the Sabbath was made for people – meaning that the rules of following God were not an end to themselves. We are only in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which is a fast-moving account of Jesus’ life, but already Jesus has caused quite a stir. So much, in fact, that the people around him, even his family, were concerned that he had gone too far.
In today’s lesson, Jesus had returned home to his family after some time away teaching and healing. A huge crowd was following him, and among that crowd were scribes – religious legal scholars – from Jerusalem. Jesus’ actions and message were so counter to everything they understood about God, the scribes accused him of being possessed by a demon. Only someone truly evil could be doing what he is doing, they said. But, what had he been doing? Healing the left behind, and teaching about God’s love of everyone, no matter their status in society. He was challenging the definition of who was welcome – and that scared people. Even Jesus’ family tried to get him to stop. Verse 31 says they tried to call him inside while he was teaching. I can almost hear them saying or even pleading, “Stop drawing attention to yourself, people are getting the wrong idea.” But Jesus, again, furthers the idea of who is welcome in God’s kingdom – “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Those who strive to do the will of God, no matter who they are or where they are along life’s journey, are family to Jesus. Even though the people were suspicious, even though they assumed the worst when he was teaching about God’s love, Jesus did not back down.
In today’s world, the word people would likely use for Jesus’ actions would be ‘weird.’ In Jesus’ time, actions against the norm were considered demonic. We have for the most part let that go, but we are quick to label someone as weird. The overtly friendly are often called weird. Those who welcome the stranger in, no matter what, are considered weird. People who give and give and give are considered weird. And, quite frankly, in today’s world – church is considered weird. Especially a church like ours. A church where the rules of membership are…well, we have no rules about who can be a member. A church that gives and gives and gives and doesn’t expect anything in return. A church that says – your questions about God are not a sin, but in fact a blessing. A church that says a person’s gender expression and sexuality are gifts from God, no matter what. Just as Jesus removed the boundaries of inclusion in God’s kingdom, we have strived to do the same. And a lot of the world looks at us and thinks “well, that’s weird.”
The world may think we are weird. Many of the people around Jesus certainly thought he was. But he didn’t let that deter him from his ministry. And nor should we. When I consider the entirety of Jesus’ teachings, I see him creating community, a beloved community. Jesus knew that God had created all of us in God’s image and that God created humanity to live together in a community of abundance and equality. Jesus lived that community into reality. His healing ministry, his welcoming of those on the margins, his teachings about what God actually requires of people other than religious rules – that was him living the Beloved Community of God into reality. And as followers of Jesus we are to do the same.
There is a bumper sticker I have seen around that says “Keep Church Weird.” I can’t think of a better message. Keep welcoming everyone. Keep giving out of your abundance. Keep hoping and praying for God’s Kingdom to come. Turn the priorities of the world upside down, even if some think that is weird. ‘Keep Church Weird.’ I have a hunch that, if Jesus were alive today, that would be something he would teach. That would be the Theology of Today – as my friend Jerry Locula said. The Theology of Today is to break the barriers that keep people out, and share the Good News of God’s love with everyone. The Theology of Today is to sit with the stranger and see the face of God. The Theology of Today is to end oppression and violence, to build bridges and not walls. The Theology of Today is to let go of suspicion when we encounter someone and instead embrace joy. The Theology of Today is to welcome everyone to God’s table – no matter who they are or where they are along life’s journey.
We at 1st Congo have done so and we will continue. Today, after a year break from the sacrament of Communion, we will once again embrace that tradition. This is an act of inclusion in the United Church of Christ, not one of exclusion. We believe, without equivocation or apology, that at God’s table everyone is welcome. Period. It is a family table, and Jesus made clear that family includes everyone, everyone who strives, in their own way, to do the will of God. Holy Communion is an act that makes real the Beloved Community of God and for this table we give God great thanks. We may not yet be able to share from one loaf of bread and one cup – but this ritual is a physical reminder of God’s welcome and Christ’s presence in our lives. An open table is one of the ways we ‘Keep Church Weird’ in today’s world. And to that I say: Hallelujah and Amen.
Welcoming and Loving God, at your Table everyone is welcome. A seat is always available and nourishment is giving to all. This is one of the great gifts you give us, and for it our thanks is abundant. As we prepare to come to your Table, we offer you are prayers.
On this day, God, we pray for those who have been turned away. We pray for those who have found doors closed rather than opened. For those who have been told that they are not welcome. We each felt, at times, that exclusion and the hurt that it brings. We have always known your love for each of us and for all of your creation. And so, we pray that those who feel like outsiders find you peace, and that we find ways to make everyone feel welcome.
Today, and everyday, we also pray for those who are sick, hurt, alone, and afraid. We pray for those who need a reminder of your presence and your blessing.
And, God, we pray unashamedly for ourselves. You know our needs, our hopes, our fears – and in those few moments of silent meditation, we seek to open our Spirits to you…
Good and Great God, we thank you for the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. Help us to live lives that mirror his and to always strive to do your will. We pray all of this, and so much more, in his name and in the way he taught us by saying…Our Father…