To Divinity and Beyond! Hospitality

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

I will gather yet others… (Isaiah 56:1-8)
I am the door… (John 10:7-16)

Our first song tonight comes from a band I had never heard of until I stumbled upon this song during one of my iTunes searches for songs. Third Door Down is a Los Angeles band that formed as a husband and wife duo, but has since expanded. This song is called Take Me for What I Am, and was released in 2002.

[Verse] If I’m your sister, Your sweet, sweet sister
Making daisy chains in the grass as kids,
I may not always be who you think I should
Just take me for what I am,
You’ll never wonder who will walk beside you
You’ll never wonder who will hold your hand
All I ask is

[Chorus] Take me for what I am,
Take me for what I am
I will always be your sweet sister,
Just take me for what I am

When Wanda and I moved to South Carolina back in 2003, we had discussed where we might go to church. Not knowing much about the church atmosphere in this state, but assuming it was probably going to be pretty conservative – we casted around for a church that would be close to where we were going to be living in Sumter.

It was that year that V. Gene Robinson was elected the first ever gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, so we thought, maybe, just maybe, the Episcopal Church in Sumter would be welcoming to us – given his election.

It was with high hopes that I composed an email to the head pastor there, explaining why we were moving to Sumter and that we were a committed lesbian couple in search of a church home. I wondered if we would be welcomed there.

A few days later I received a reply. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of his response was this: We would certainly be welcome to come to his church. They would be thrilled to have us attend – if we gave up our sinful lifestyles and sought to marry some nice Episcopalian men.

Needless to say, we never darkened the door of the Episcopal Church in Sumter. However, right across the street from the house in Sumter was a Nazarene church. We were moving some stuff into the house one day when the assistant pastor stopped by for a visit. He chatted us up for a few minutes and extolled the virtues and welcome of his church. Wanda and I kind of smirked at one another and told him that we didn’t think we’d be welcome at his church.

“Well, why not?” he asked earnestly.

“Um, because we’re lesbians,” we replied.

And to his credit he said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned you’d still be welcome. The day we don’t welcome anyone into our church is the day I stop going there.”

He made a quick and polite exit after that, but we were impressed with his words of welcome. We never tested out if that welcome would have, indeed, been genuine, mainly because we had no interest in being part of a Nazarene church. I’d like to think, however, that he was sincere and his church really would have taken us for we are – without seeking to change us like those pseudo welcoming Episcopalians.

Our ancient Hebrew ancestors would have understood how we felt in Sumter that year – like strangers in a strange land. The Hebrews were accustomed to being in places they couldn’t really call home – held in slavery in Egypt, sent into exile in Babylon, and even prevented from being at home in their own land under Roman occupiers.

God, however, is clear that even when they are feeling like strangers in a strange land – that’s no excuse for them to not show hospitality. Because they have experienced the horrible feeling of being an outsider – a foreigner – a stranger – a pariah – God is clear that they should never make others feel that way. So, God tells them She will gather everyone in – not just the chosen people, but even those who are despised by the Hebrews. Eunuchs, foreigners, anyone who has been shunned by Israel in the past will now be part of God’s “house of prayer for all people.”

Through Isaiah, we are reminded that God is still in the hospitality business – and to go to divinity and beyond – we must embrace our own divine characteristic of hospitality.

Because we, too, have felt unwelcome, shunned, or rejected by the church – we are called to make sure that no one else ever feels that way when they come into our midst. Anyone – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, strangers, friends, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, Methodist, Buddhist, liberals, Democrats, Libertarians, fundamentalists, atheists, Republicans – anyone who steps through that door – must be welcomed into the God’s house of prayer for all people with Holy hospitality.

You were once outcasts, God tells the Hebrews then, and us today – make sure no one you meet ever has to experience that horrible feeling from you.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] If I’m your friend, I’m your wild, wild friend
And I’m always running ’round, always changing plans
I may not always do what you think I should,
Just take me for what I am
You’ll never wonder, who’ll be there to guide you
You’ll never wonder who will take your side
All I ask is

[Chorus] Take me for what I am,
Take me for what I am I will always be your wild, wild friend,
Just take me for what I am

It’s not easy for us to accept the strangers among us, especially if they are people we consider “other” or “different.” If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t easy for those ancient desert dwelling Hebrews either. They longed to again be assured that they were God’s chosen people – the ones Yahweh loved beyond all others. Like Woody, they wanted to be the favorite, with no competition for God’s affection.

As hard as it is, however, to show hospitality for the human strangers among us, what is harder still – for our Hebrew ancestors, and for us – is to show true hospitality to Holy.

If we show true hospitality to the Holy – truly welcoming the Holy into the sanctuary of our hearts – not just into our minds – we find that She is a truly wild, wild friend – always running around, changing plans, and not acting like we think the Holy should. The Holy calls us out of our comfort zones, out of our small, neat worlds, and into a wild world where we’re often jealous that the Holy can love and welcome people we’d prefer not to love or welcome.

God had to break the Hebrews of this practice of trying to tame the Holy by keeping God locked up in a temple. We like to keep God enshrined in one place so we can keep an eye on Him – so we can make God safe and predictable. It was animated theologian Homer J. Simpson who, upon seeing an ornate church building, remarked, “I don’t know much about God, but they sure built him a fine cage.” And we prefer our Holy in a cage, where we can pet it, and teach it tricks.

The Holy, however, is a wild, wild friend, and demands that we take her as she is – unpredictable, maddening, doing things we don’t like, and loving people we don’t like. The Israelite’s God cage was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans. They had to learn that God’s home is everywhere we look. Our wild, wild friend lives in, through, and around us at all times.

Jubilants, to go to divinity and beyond, we have to not only open our hearts and doors to every human being we meet – we also must do the hard work of extending true hospitality to that wild, wild, untamable friend – the Holy. If the Holy takes us for what and who we are – we must take the Holy for what and who She is – that sweet, wild sister who blows where He will – but never leaves us wondering who will walk beside us or who will take our hand when we’re in need.

[Bridge] I don’t always know where we’re going
And I may not get very far,
We all need a hand up, Just to touch the stars

[Chorus] Take me for what I am
Take me for what I am
I may not always do what you think I should
Just take me for what I am
Take me for what I am, Take me for what I am,
I will always be your sweet sister,
Just take me for what I am
Take me what I am – Take me for what I am

Author Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, tells a story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery. An older monk tells a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road, and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”

Breathe deeply.

The Goo Goo Dolls got their start in 1986 in Buffalo, New York. They shot to stardom in 1998, when their song Iris hit the top of the charts after being featured in a film called City of Angels starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. Our second song tonight is not that song, but a song called As I Am from their 2008 release Something for the Rest of Us. Let’s try it.

Yeah I tried so hard to make it
Now I watched it slip a-way
The hardest thing to face is the silence in the space
At times I feel so empty through the day
Can we make it through the darkness?
And will we make it through the day?

Calling out for you again you always find my way
Calling out for you, you know you heal these empty days
And it’s all because you take me as I am
And it’s all because you take me as I am

In our Jesus story, we find our guy engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, arguing with the Pharisees about religion. In the previous chapter of John, Jesus had healed a blind man, but the Pharisees refused to believe that the healing was real, and they cast out the blind man from their community. Jesus finds out about this and does what he did best – tell stories that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the situation at hand.

The story he told them was about sheep and shepherds. Good shepherds, he tells them, will literally lay down their lives for their sheep. They will defend the sheep from all dangers, from wolves, from thieves, and robbers. Good shepherds, he tells them, gathers in sheep – they never toss them out.

What set Jesus apart from all the other shepherds though is that he tells the Pharisees he is “the gate of the sheep.” Not only will he keep the sheep safe and sound, even unto death, he is the way the sheep get in and out. In our search for a church in Sumter, we found plenty of gates, but none of them really led to true security – or true hospitality. Jesus, though, he’s the gate – the way to come into the presence of the Holy for those who seek God in a Christian context.

Let’s consider gates for a minute. We have a gate at our house that serves two purposes, it keeps people out – but it keeps our dogs in – most of the time, anyway! Other gates serve double duty, too, like the gate to a playground to keep children safe, and keep anything from harming them out. Some gates are meant to keep us out though – those with “No trespassing” or “Private Property” signs are clearly marked to turn people away.

Some gates are beautiful, with flowering vines and other foliage inviting us into its peaceful confines. Other gates, topped with barbed wire warn us away from places.

While Jesus said he is the gate to the sheep, note that he didn’t say he was the gatekeeper. We’re familiar with gatekeepers, those who decide who get to go in and who gets to go out. The United Church of Christ produced a commercial a few years ago that featured gatekeepers. Two burly bouncers were stationed outside the door of the church selecting who would go in and who would not.

The lily-white heterosexual family with two children were motioned through while the gay couple, the interracial couple, or the disabled people were shut out.

Religious people often forget that Jesus is the gate that welcomes anyone – and set themselves up as gatekeepers deciding who is welcome and who is not. We found plenty of gatekeepers in Sumter – and there are still plenty there, here, and around the world.

To go to divinity and beyond, however, we must follow Jesus’ example, and instead of being gatekeepers, simply be the gate. We must never become a barrier to anyone seeking the safety of the Holy’s sheepfold. This is not our sheepfold to guard. Jesus told the Pharisees that there are other sheep in this world that are not of their fold, and they will be gathered also.

This is exactly what Isaiah told the Hebrews. Don’t think you’re special. Don’t think you’re all that and the Holy loves on you. No, there are other sheep in this world – there are others who are not like you, others you don’t like, and others who don’t like you, and you know what – you’re all going to be gathered together in one big old house of prayer for all people. No gatekeepers, no bouncers, no excuses. Better get used to it, bucko, because, in reality, you have no choice but to extend divine hospitality to every single person you meet. Sinner and saint alike – they – like you – are God’s special, beloved, children.

Don’t squabble over who is prettier and who Momma loves more – you’re all beautiful, you’re all adored, you’re all amazing, and you’re all taken by the Holy just as you are.

You know I run to find the answers
And what I need to find is you
And I don’t need anything, no I don’t need anything
Because I know you always take me as I am
You know you get me through the darkness
You know you get me through the day

Calling out for you again you always find my way
Calling out for you, you know you heal these empty days
And it’s all because you take me as I am
And it’s all because you take me as I am

It’s easy to talk about our divine characteristic of hospitality. We can even become a bit smug about it. I mean, after all, we’re an intentional, progressive, inclusive, community. Anyone who walks through that door is welcome to join us, right? We will take them just as they are, right?

A few years ago, I was hurt deeply by a friend. I felt betrayed by this person, and really didn’t want to have anything to do with them ever again. This person came to Garden of Grace on occasion and someone asked me if, after all the hurt, would I be able to truly welcome them into the church?

That’s a great – tough – question. If someone came to church who had hurt you deeply, could you extend hospitality? The question stops me now just as it did then. It’s exactly what God was telling the Hebrews, and what Jesus was telling the Pharisees – those foreigners, those Eunuchs you disdain, and who disdain you – they are included in God’s hospitality – welcome in the house of prayer for ALL people. Divine hospitality embodies not just welcome but reconciliation – and justice.

“Keep justice, and do righteousness,” Isaiah tells his listeners – and tells us today. Hospitality isn’t just about smiling, saying hello, and handing someone a bulletin – it’s about truly taking that person into your midst, into your community, into your heart, just as they are – not as you would wish them to be – and doing right by them. Anyone who has been in community for five minutes knows it ain’t easy – it’s messy, it’s hard, and it usually ain’t pretty – but it is what we are commanded to do – to gather the “other” – to treat them with justice and righteousness – and make them truly welcome.

It is in that messiness of community – that facing of life’s crises together – that finally bonds Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

In the end, they have made peace with one another, and have even become friends because they realize they are part of the same community, and they must love, respect, and help each other – even if they bug the heck out of each other.

My response to the person who asked me that question was this: “How can I say we are a welcoming church if I cannot welcome everyone – even those who have hurt me?” It would be very hard, but, yes, I would welcome that person – it is what God commands, and expects, of me.

This is our challenge, Jubilants. To go to divinity and beyond we must welcome all – those we like, those we don’t like, those who like us, those who don’t like us, those we don’t know, and those who have hurt us the deepest. The Holy takes everyone as they are, with no exceptions.

Can you go to divinity and beyond – and open your heart to absolutely everyone – and take them as they are?

Breathe deeply.

Calling out for you again you always find my way
Calling out for you, you know you heal these empty days
And it’s all because you take me as I am
And it’s all because you take me as I —
all because you take me as I am

Oh, Yeah!