“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion.

I would argue that one of the important sources for this powerful idea of inclusion comes from how we Christians have thought about God, a God who reaches out in love.

I believe that reaching out in love is built into the very character of God. God is love, and the Godhead of the Holy Trinity is a community of mutual love that spills out to the whole creation. This divine love is inclusive; it’s for everyone. Jonathan Edwards, our second pastor, would say its for everything as well!

I’ve been thinking hard about this theme since Lent when, as some of you may recall, I gave a short presentation on “What I love about Luke.” And one of the things I love about Luke is that in his Gospel, God has special regard for the nobodies of the world: those I call “the last, the least, and the lost.”

These were the people that in Luke’s day were without power, such as shepherds, youngest sons, women, lepers and the like. And I came upon this wonderful little phrase in both Luke and Acts, “far off.” In Luke it is in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in Acts it is in Peter’s Pentecost sermon at the temple in Jerusalem.

So I have been worrying this little phrase “far off” in my mind for a few months, and a month ago I wrote a daily devotional for the UCC with the same title as todays’ sermon: “The God of the Far Off.” It appeared yesterday (You can find it here.)

And I recall finishing that devotional and thinking to myself “I have more I want to say about this than I can say in 300 words,” so when Brent invited me to preach today I thought AHAH! That is what I will do.

And I’m also on the Vision Working Group for our congregation, and I started thinking that if our God is a God of the “far off” and if, by extension, the church must be a church for the “far off,” what might that mean for how we see our mission and ministry here in Stockbridge?

So first let me share with you what I mean when I say our God is a God who reaches out to the “far off.” In Luke Jesus tells the familiar parable about a father and his two sons. We heard a piece of it just now from Mary Lou during the children’s time.

This parable is one of the best-loved passages in the Bible. Brent preached a terrific sermon on it not long ago. So what is it about this parable people that people love? For me it is the tenderness of the father with his sons.

Today I’m only going to talk about the younger son, the one we call “the prodigal son.” We don’t know his name, but we do know he has absolutely nothing going for him. He has told his father to drop dead (which is what asking for your inheritance means) and he has taken it and wasted it and now he is slinking home starving.

And there is this extraordinary part of the story where the son is almost home and he is practicing his little repentance speech, and the father sees him “while he was still far off” and he runs out to greet him and embraces him and kisses him.

And Jesus is saying to us “that is what God is like.” And we miss some of the powerful nuances of the story because today a father might very well embrace and kiss his son, but this was unheard of in Jesus’ time. And for a Jewish father in that time to go running would have been considered undignified. Jesus is saying that the love the father has for his son is so powerful that it overrides convention and propriety. That’s what God is like.

And the father didn’t just wait around for the son to turn up; he was actively watching for his lost son to return.

That’s what God is like. It’s extraordinary really. It is the undeserved grace that President Obama was talking about. This grace is unearned, unmerited, and flows from the love of God alone, which is God’s nature. And this gift of grace defies our conventions, because one of the hallmarks of modernity is an emphasis on individual human freedom and initiative. Even when we turn to religion we typically see it as something we do.

But this parable tells a different story. It says that you may think you have been searching for God, but all along, and even before you began your search, God was searching for you. Like the father in the parable, God waits, watches, and reaches out in love.

And after the time of Jesus this good news about the loving inclusive character of God changed the world. Here was a religion inviting all into a new community that wasn’t based on clan or class, or race or caste, or anything else among the myriad matters that divide the human family.

And that good news of God’s inclusion and embrace is still as profound and true and world-changing as it has ever been, even though we must confess that the church has failed to perfectly embody its truth.

Our second reading today is from Ephesians (2:11-22) By the time Ephesians was written, somewhere around 80 or 90 AD the world had seen Jews and Gentiles living together in this new community around the Risen Messiah Jesus.

The writer of Ephesians reminds his Gentile Christian addressees about this miracle of their full inclusion into the church and their receiving the promises of Israel and Israel’s God that had previously been reserved for Israel alone.

Listen carefully to what he writes to them: “Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

There it is again: “far off.” The divine reaching out to the “far off” and the bringing them into full inclusion into {God’s household.”

So when I say that reaching out is built in to the character of God I am making an expansive claim about the scope and scale of God’s loving reach.

Nobody is outside of that loving reach. Not the prodigal son, not the non-religious, not sinners, not the righteous, not you and not me. Nobody is outside the loving reach of God.

And that is a claim about God’s justice as well as God’s mercy; because God’s mercy and God’s justice go together. President Obama understood that, and so after talking about God’s amazing grace he then turned to talking about the need for equal justice in society.

Because if one believes that God’s love and mercy go out to everyone, how can you then deprive them of equality and justice?

And a church that accepts the mercy without attending to the justice is practicing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (From The Cost of Discipleship)

Bonhoeffer called the alternative to cheap grace “costly grace.” Costly grace walks the walk as well as talks the talk. It never separates God’s mercy from God’s justice. One way I like to talk about it is this: “God loves us just as we are, but loves us too much to let us stay that way.”

We don’t know what happened to the prodigal son, but I like to think his life was changed by his father’s love and mercy. I like to imagine him going into rehab, then working for his father to pay back his inheritance, and then opening a food pantry to feed the hungry, for he knew what hunger was. Such actions would represent the integrity of his inclusion.

A year ago, on July 27, Brent preached a sermon from this pulpit called “Touchstones,” do you remember it? I do. (There is an audio podcast of it here.)

He talked about how one of the important touchstones for him is Roman’s 8: 26:39, that long lovely passage that ends with: “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

And Brent said this:

It was this passage that helped me hold on to a faith despite a church that said who I am is sinful and wrong. It was this touchstone that kept me clinging to God rather than the teaching of the church when the wind blew and the rain fell, when the storms raged for a night, for not just a night but for decades. It is what kept me as a gay man from wandering off from the church and from God himself amidst that storm and getting lost. Without this passage there would be zero chance that I would be here today.

Brent was wise enough to separate the truth of God’s reach from the failed witness of the church.

So when our pastor stands here on Sundays and says, as he invariably does, “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” he really means it. And he doesn’t just mean it because it’s is the stated position of this congregation, which it is, but because it is a true statement about the very character of the God we worship, who reaches out in love to everybody and especially to those who are far off. And what a gift his personal witness is to this congregation.

Because if reaching out in love is built into the character of God it also stands to reason that reaching out in love is essential to the character of the church. The reason reaching out in love is essential to the character of the church is because of who God is. Because God is who he is, we are who we are. Or at least who we should be and who we try to be. The analogy, of course, breaks down, because God loves with a perfect love whereas we do not.

One of the extraordinary things about the language of the President’s eulogy on Friday was that it was the language of the church, and especially the African American church. It was the language of the Civil Rights movement, and it is a language deeply rooted in the Biblical narrative of who God is, a God of justice and mercy, and also who God wants his people to be, a people of justice and mercy.

And President Obama knows this language, knows its rhythms and cadences. He can even sing it, as we heard Friday when he broke out into “Amazing Grace.”

And though a disconcertingly high number of our fellow citizens believe that he is a Muslim the President is a Christian. In fact, he worshipped in our largest UCC congregation, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, for over twenty years, and we should be proud of that because it helped him develop his ear for the language of grace that he now brings to us to help us think wisely about our national life together.

He is employing the language of grace, of mercy and justice to argue for the full inclusion of everyone into the national life, and especially those who have been excluded from it. He named some of the challenges especially facing the African American community: poor schools, job discrimination, daily gun violence, voter disenfranchisement, and the mass incarceration of young black men.

It was really quite astonishing to me to hear this president, who, to be frank, has been criticized for being timid and careful about addressing these issues, speaking hard truths to the American people. He never has to win another election, and it sounded to me as if he spoke with a newfound and heartfelt freedom.

I think he gave us all a gift that offers us the opportunity to make our nation more just, more fair, more inclusive.

And in using the language of faith, the language of justice and mercy, he reminds those of us in the church that this is our language, and comes from our story, and to ask ourselves where have we failed to live it out?

In the context of the President’s speech he was speaking not just to Christians, but to all Americans. He was necessarily constrained to speak in a general way about God. We call this rather generic God-talk American civil religion, and it can be a two-edged sword, sometimes used to gin up a misplaced patriotism around ill-founded projects (like some wars I can think of.)

But not this time! This time our President employed the language of American Civil religion to appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” to help us work toward “a more perfect union.”

Of course you and I have no such constraints in our talk about God. We are Christians. This is our language and our story. We can talk about “Amazing Grace,” and the reconciliation of all in the cross of Jesus Christ. We can talk about forgiveness.

I had a man tell me earlier this week in the light of the Charlestown church massacre that he found it weak and disgusting that the families of the slain forgave their murderer at his hearing. I said, “I found it most inspiring.” “Well you would, wouldn’t you?” He said, “You’re a Christian!” It shocked me, but at that moment I realized how I take certain things for granted that are not shared by everyone.

I believe in forgiveness, because I know what it is like to have been forgiven. I believe in grace because most of the good things that have happened to me in my life I haven’t earned or deserved.

I believe in the God of the far off because I have been far off and brought home, lost and found.

And I believe that nobody is too far off to be excluded from God’s loving inclusion and embrace.

In Ephesians we are told that Jesus came and “preached peace to those who were far off and those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). Today, “those who are near” might be our fellow church members.

But who are the “far off” in our day? In our holy calling to spread Christ’s peace and embody God’s love, who have we missed? Who have we overlooked, ignored, or neglected? And can we lengthen our reach?

There are lots of reasons people feel excluded from the church. Some believe they are not good enough. A couple of times in my life, ironically during the times I needed the church the most, I felt like I didn’t belong. I can’t even quite describe the particulars, but I felt like church people were somehow different from me, better somehow. And there are all kinds of subtle little social markers that let people know whether they really belong.

We need to be so careful about this. Because there are folks who really need a loving community and need to hear the good news of God’s love. There are struggling people, wounded people, people with addictions, people who feel that they are unloved and unloveable, lonely people. We all need a loving community where we feel included. We all need a place where we are accepted. Where we can share our stories and have others say, “Me, too!”

And so we need to constantly work about being better at this ministry of inclusion. God’s loving is perfect, but ours is not, our reach always exceeds our grasp. So we can always do better as witnesses to God’s amazing grace, and always widen our welcome to come ever closer to the run and reach of God. Because nobody is ever too far off to be beyond the loving embrace of God. Nobody. Ever. Amen.

I preached this sermon at the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, MA on June 28, 2015. A podcast of this sermon can be heard on the church’s website here.)

(Photo: Detail from Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son)

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