Jeremiah 1.4-10

Matthew 10.16, 24-31

Welcoming Radicals

Third Sunday of Easter

I was the last one out of the building when I left the church the other day.  And as I was about to walk out the door, I looked at all the rummage treasures that were beginning to accumulate in the Fellowship Hall, and wondered to myself, “Should I lock the door?”  There was already quite a lot of stuff collected there, and I didn’t want to risk any of it walking away on its own; but I also thought, Maybe I should leave the door open for anyone who might want to drop something off after I left.  That moment of hesitation – do I lock the church or do I leave it open? – took me back to a difficult conversation I had with a Board of Trustees many years ago.  We were talking about security, and even though the church had a long tradition of keeping the sanctuary doors open during the day for anyone who wanted to come in and sit, or pray, we began to wonder if this was still a wise idea in a more modern day and age.  It was a difficult conversation because eventually we decided it would be the prudent thing to keep the church building locked, and we all recognized that in that moment, something had been lost that was unlikely to be recovered.

In retrospect, this seems like it was a naïve conversation.  Three years ago my previous congregation held a workshop for church staff and lay leadership around active-shooter training – what do you do if someone comes into the church with a gun?  One of the reasons we held the workshop is because the building – and it is a pretty massive building – also houses a pre-school and elementary school five days a week, so we did the training in conjunction with the school staff.  But it was a jarring experience:  Deacons armed with walkie-talkies, multiple alternative escape routes, designated meeting spots, safety words – I’m not sure this is what anyone signed on for when they decided to join church leadership.  And even that experience pales in comparison with the reality that our sisters and brothers on East King’s Highway at Congregation Beth Shalom have an armed police presence at all their public activities.  And we understand all the reasons why, and we cannot but agree that safety has to come first, but like those Trustees many years ago, we lament the fact that something has been lost that is unlikely ever to be recovered.

These thoughts came to mind after the shooting at Chabad of Poway in California last weekend; specifically I was struck by a headline in Sunday’s paper, Another House of Worship, Another Deadly Shooting.  The totality of recent experience has made me wonder, and perhaps you as well, why so many terror attacks are directed at houses of worship.  The list is sobering:   a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina; First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas; Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; the Easter morning bombings in Sri Lanka; and last week’s shooting in Poway.  There are two basic reasons, I think:  one is prejudice, whether it is anti-Semitism or hatred toward Muslims or resentment of Christians; and the other is that houses of worship are soft targets.  Even the best anti-shooter training can only go so far – a Deacon with a walkie-talkie is no match for someone with an assault rifle.

But there are other reasons at work as well.  One is infamy, some deluded individual wanting to make a name for himself – which is why New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded brilliantly to the mosque attack when she refused to speak or even acknowledge the perpetrator’s name.  But the other factor at work is fear, specifically the desire to create fear among religious populations, whatever the faith.  It is the motivating power of fear that drove me to Jesus’ words in Matthew this morning. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear what can destroy both soul and [the] body…”  And I wonder:  when we lock down our churches and our temples and our mosques and our public places of worship – and yes, our schools as well - have we also given up a little piece of our soul?

Now let me be clear, I do not cavil with Congregation Beth Shalom’s precaution, and I think the students schooled in my former church building deserve all the protection we can possibly provide.  I think it is consistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew.  In those brief verses Deb read this morning, we heard the phrase, Do Not Be Afraid, or something similar, not once, not twice, but three times in the span of six verses.  I have this rule of thumb when it comes to that phrase Jesus uses:  the more Jesus says “Do Not Be Afraid,” the more fearful I become.  I mean, if he keeps saying it, there must be something to be afraid of, right?  And when God called Jeremiah into the prophetic life, God said, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,” but Jeremiah had plenty to fear during his life, the Chaldeans and the King of Babylon foremost among them.

So maybe Do Not Be Afraid doesn’t exactly mean, Do Not Be Afraid.  Maybe it means something more along the lines of, Don’t let fear rule you, don’t let fear acquire power over you.  There are things we may and probably should legitimately be afraid of, but don’t let that fear drive the bus.  Don’t let that fear drive the bus.

One of you sent me a funny church email earlier this week; it was actually a copy of an Episcopal Church’s welcoming statement.  It’s too long to read in its entirety this morning, so let me pick out some of the better bits:

“We welcome you whether you’re married, divorced, widowed, partnered, single, skinny as a soda straw or a bit on the pudgy side.  We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or can’t carry a tune in a galvanized bucket.  We don’t care if you’re Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, whether you’re none of the above or all of them.  We invite all those over sixty who have yet to grow up, teenagers who feel they are already adults, as well as overworked moms, football addicted dada, starving artists, tree-huggers, rednecks, latte-sippers, health nuts and junk food junkies.  We welcome you here if you had religion crammed down your throat as a kid, got lost and ended up here thinking it was a rock and roll festival…”

And so it goes.  (Thanks for that, Scott!)

The point is clear.  Everyone is welcome.  Everyone is welcome and there are no exceptions.  And what does this have to do with the fear that targets houses of worship?  Well, for one thing, the violence has, to the best of my knowledge – and please correct me if I’m wrong – the violence has nearly always been committed by “the other.”  Non-Jews shooting Jews, non-Christians bombing churches, whites shooting blacks, Christians targeting Muslims.  But if we were able to create a world that lives out the reality that we all belong to one another, that everyone is included and there is no “other,” I wonder what that world might look like.  I know, now it is I who am being naïve, but if we can deny or diminish fear’s fierce grip  – remember Jesus’ admonition, Do not fear, even though there are enough things to be afraid of - and if we can somehow erase or begin to blur the line that draws some people in and some people out that creates the feeling of otherness, I wonder if that might begin to move our world in a better direction.

I believe it is possible to make room for all those categories of people that Episcopal church winsomely invited, not just in our houses of worship, but wherever people gather and live and work and move together.  I left this morning’s sermon title deliberately vague because I wanted it to mean two different things.  “Welcoming radicals” means on the one hand that we welcome everyone, no matter how radically different they may be from ourselves.  But it also means that we are the radicals – we are the welcoming radicals - when we choose to receive everyone without distinction.  As that elaborate Episcopalian invitation concludes, “We welcome tourists, locals, skeptics, warm hearts and hardened ones, because you are a beloved child of God.”

Amen.

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