“Beyond Welcome and into God’s Freedom”

A Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4 and Galatians 3:26-29
Deborah Krause, Eden Theological Seminary

Covenant Network of Presbyterians Regional Gatheringdeborah_krause
Second Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, MO
February 16, 2013

On the door of First Presbyterian Church, St. Louis – a church in which I served as a field education intern while I was in Seminary, a church in which I was married, a church in which the man I married, Bill Perman, now serves as pastor, and where our daughters, Izzy and Bekah, confirmed their faith, a church that I love as much as any church on earth – there is a sign. That sign is adorned with a rainbow symbol, and it reads “We invite all.”

I love that sign for what it represents – that First Presbyterian along with just a few other churches in this Presbytery have collaborated for more than a decade with national organizations of the PCUSA – such as the Covenant Network and More Light Presbyterians — to work for the full inclusion of all God’s children into the life and ministry of the church. I love the witness of this sign, and how it has served as a symbol of safe sanctuary and welcome for LGBTQI people who have both visited and joined our community. I imagine that many of us here today might have similar signs on our churches – a quick perusal of websites of Covenant Network and More Light Churches reveal quite a bit of rainbow bunting, and an equal measure of rhetoric about invitation, inclusion, and welcome. It is a very popular and well loved banner.

But today, I have to confess, that this sign also bothers me. Every time I walk by, it makes me wonder. What does it mean to say “We Invite All?” Just who do “we” think we are? Who are these all we think we invite? Do they really want to come? If so, where the heck are they? And more seriously, just where do “we” imagine we are – to do this inviting of these “all” we welcome?

I want you to understand me. I am not worried about the grammar of the sign. That isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is the ecclesiological imagination behind the sign.

“We invite all.”

We imagine ourselves as an established group — somewhere on the inside. We have a “We-ness.”

We hold position, place, and in some implied sense, priority. We are, after all, doing the inviting here.

We say “you (who are outside) are welcome to enter in to where we are. Come and join us in all the good things we do and in all the good things we are.” If there is a “we” – there is also likely another group of “you all” or “they.”

You see, as much as I love my church, I have to admit that “We invite all” is a somewhat smug and privileged ecclesiology. And it is not alone. It is like other expressions of inclusivity I hear throughout progressive churches today – take for example the UCC’s Open and Affirming movement — these monikers assume a privileged space of centrality that bears blessing, belonging, and an institutionally sanctioned affirmation into which our LGBTQI siblings are welcomed to partake. The idea is “We” are the church.” If you come join us where we are, then we will affirm you.

Now welcome can be a beautiful expression of Christian hospitality and care. Affirmation of people as children of God is an important witness of God’s love for all. But as a way of being church it is problematic in that constructs insider and outsider status – as well as a center of privileged power and belonging.

I want to know how we got here. When I hear the teaching of Jesus as he begins his movement to proclaim the realm of God in the world – he seems to be cutting in a completely different direction.

In the early sayings tradition known as Q – embedded in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls the missionaries of the movement to go out into the neighboring towns – they are to take no money, no extra clothes or shoes. They are instructed – “whatever house you enter, say “peace be to this house – and remain in that house, eating and drinking what they provide.” (Luke 10 3-8). Listen to that – the missionaries of the movement are basically inviting themselves in!

How did we in the church get this so backwards? Jesus does not send his followers out into the world to make safe places of welcome. In fact he sends them out to disrupt established structures and practices of hospitality—and to demand welcome rather than to grant it.  What would it mean for the church to follow this calling – to forsake our privileged sense of centrality in the culture – wherein we welcome the outsider, and to take on the role of disrupters of towns, and cities, and countries – demanding welcome and resources in the service of God’s realm?

Luke portrays Jesus doing this himself in his first sermon at Nazareth. In that text he reads from Isaiah 61:1-4 and the home town crowd hear Jesus’ words as an affirmation of their centrality in God’s work for redemption. They are the poor, the captive, and the blind to whom this good news comes. But Jesus disrupts their sense of position from which to receive God’s blessing and deliver welcome. He points away from their center and out into God’s freedom in the world. Jesus’ ministry – both in his own sayings – and in the stories told about him – seems to have been a practice of disrupting rather than establishing welcome. It seems to have been a practice of turning the inside out.

Don’t get me wrong, over the past decades of the sexuality debates within the Presbyterian Church USA – movements like the Covenant Network, More Light, and That all May Freely Serve and others have faithfully worked for a more inclusive church. This has been important – as the culture more broadly has been viciously homophobic and unreflectively heteronormative. It has also been important, as the PCUSA itself was tarnished in its very constitution with exclusionary language that was unjust and sinful. As such we appropriately acknowledged that our larger church and culture were hostile to our LGBTQI siblings. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from that violence, so we wrapped ourselves in the rainbow flag to say – this particular congregation, or this particular organization affirms you as a child of God. Here you are safe. Here you are welcome.

But now we are in an era of post G-6.0106b, when the church is constitutionally less hostile. We are also in a cultural and political climate where legal victories on behalf of gender justice and equality – outside the church — are mounting like a wave – such as the Illinois State Senate vote for Marriage Equality and the Sikeston, MO school board ruling[i] both just this week. (Sikeston, Missouri, people — now proudly home of “throwed rolls” and queer proms). Yes homophobia and heteronormativity are still the rule, and yes we must still be vigilant – but these are stunning shifts and changes. And in light of them, we must consider our purpose. Does God have more in store for the Church than safe sanctuaries of welcome or wedding chapels of marriage equality? Yes these have been important witnesses for justice. But as we follow Jesus, are we not all called to risk our whole lives in nothing less than God’s mission to redeem all of creation?

If there was ever a church leader who knew the call to risk one’s life, it was Paul. In the text we heard from Galatians, Paul is seeking to defend his particular vision of building communities to participate in God’s redemptive plan of salvation for the whole world. You see, in Galatia he had encountered opposition to his mission. There were other leaders of the Jesus movement who questioned Paul’s practice of baptizing Gentiles. In the midst of making a theological argument for his practice, Paul quotes a baptismal formula from the liturgy of the church. This formula underscores Paul’s more inclusive practice of building church membership, and it illuminates Paul’s vision of the ultimate goal of that inclusion. And that goal is not safe sanctuary – for anyone.

In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul is bold to proclaim that in baptism we are all one – there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. Listen closely – the parallels and lack thereof are instructive. The baptismal liturgy Paul is quoting calls for the obliteration of difference between Jew/Greek and Slave/Free. In other words, there are no genealogical claims to privileged position, no rankings of social patronage within the communities of those who have been baptized into Christ.  In these two pairs Paul is proclaiming that in baptism there is no privileged center in which anyone in Christ resides. There is no “we-ness” — are all ONE in Christ Jesus.

But then in the third section of the formula there is a slightly different construction. Rather than continuing the pattern of this or that,  Paul states – there is neither male and female. This phrase, neither male and female –  as Dale Martin argues in his book, Sex and the Single Savior — does not so much negate the difference between men and women (making males and females equal), but rather calls for the obliteration of gendered normativity altogether.[ii]  In other words – Paul is not imagining a community of equality between the sexes (which is the way this text is often read), but something much more radical. Paul is imagining a community in which humanity is recreated outside of the constructed dichotomy of maleness and femaleness.  As Martin notes – this is a radically queer vision. It is nothing short of a call to live as a new creation. In drawing the baptismal formula into his argument in the letter, Paul is outlining an approach to being church in which not only are All welcome, even more importantly — All (including any imagination of “we” and “they”) are changed.

Paul’s rhetoric in Galatians 3:26-28 helps us to see that he is seeking to lead a community of both welcome and risk. Paul’s ecclesiological imagination – fueled by the Spirit which is in Christ Jesus — is driven not to create safe sanctuary, but to participate in the disorienting, frightening, divesting mission of God’s redemption of the whole world.

As we enter into this new day in the church and broader culture perhaps it is time to replace the welcome mats with something more like a warning sign – (as my friend and colleague, Martha Robertson at Eden Seminary has proposed) “enter this community at your own risk – here all people are changed for good.” Perhaps it is time to let go of our privileged constructs of welcome and centrality (our treasured “We-ness”)– and look out into the world for how God’s Spirit is at work redeeming all of creation – and with humility and openness – find ways to engage in that work, and experience – even for ourselves the transforming and redeeming work of God.

[i] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/02/15/16975038-gay-teen-wins-right-to-attend-prom-with-boyfriend?lite

[ii] Dale B. Martin, “The Queer History of Galatians 3:28,” in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 2006), 77-90.

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