Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sermon; Epiphany 2A; Is. 49:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9; John 1:29-42; Matt. 7:13-14

Lines, boundaries and barriers are easy. They tell us exactly where we need to be, what is and is not acceptable behavior, and who may or may not participate. We generally like lines, boundaries and barriers because they can define us and they can simplify our lives. On the high end, we can use them to explain why we do what we do. On the low end, we simply hide behind them because “thems the rules.”

Lines, boundaries and barriers – rules – are easy. And because they are easy we find it easy to pick out those lines, boundaries and barriers from Scripture. It doesn't take much effort to find all of the shalts, shalt nots and other admonitions scattered throughout the Bible. It doesn't take much effort to find those verses that condemn and banish certain people. This makes it easy for us to point to the Bible Rules and claim to those people whom we exclude, “Please understand, it's not us. But thems the rules and I can't do anything about it.”

All of that is easy. What is much more difficult is to find those instances where the rules aren't as important as envisioning universal salvation. It isn't that those instances are rare and well-hidden that makes them difficult to find; it's that we think they are difficult to find because we are too busy looking for the rules. We spend so much time looking for and focused on the rules that we miss the generous inclusiveness of God.

The Gospel of John gives us many examples of God's generous inclusiveness if we are willing to open our eyes and see it. Jesus brings life and light to all people. He bestows grace and truth to all willing to receive it. He wasn't sent to condemn, but to save. He treats women and foreigners as equals. He says all who believe in him will be saved. He says he has other sheep not belonging to this fold that he will gather in. And in today's gospel he asks a couple of guys, “What are you looking for?” and invites them to come and see what he's all about.

This last may not seem significant, but considering that this is the first call story in John, it's more significant than you might originally think. This sets the tone for all of Jesus' encounters in that he doesn't ask if they are worthy, nor does he verify if they believe the “right” things. In short, he simply says, “Come and see.”

Come and see. All are welcome.

If we are willing to see this universality, then we can also see it in Paul's letters. Today we have the opening lines of his letter to the Corinthians. He addresses it to those “called to be saints together with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus.”

Yes, Paul addresses issues and behaviors in the church that are not healthy and problematic. Legal debates, idols, food issues, ecstatic speaking, party factions and denial of the resurrection were all things prevalent in Corinth at that time. Paul did advocate to expel some of these behaviors that were detrimental to the congregation, but in the big picture Paul is reminding the people that a call to the church is a call to a change in life. People can't be changed unless they are given access. And it's in that universal access that we should be inviting people to come and see because all are welcome.

This idea of stepping outside our lines, boundaries and barriers, of ignoring them or of breaking them down is not only a New Testament idea; it also shows up in the Old Testament. And it shows up in today's reading.

Today's reading is taken from that section of Isaiah that was written during the Babylonian exile. Isaiah says that he was called by God before he was born to bring Jacob back from exile and to gather all the scattered people of Israel back into his loving embrace. This is clearly a call to rescue the chosen people of God from their exile in Babylon and bring them back into their homeland. But then God says something interesting to Isaiah.

He says, “It is too light a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations so that my salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth.”

God himself is breaking down the lines, boundaries and barriers that Israel is using to keep themselves separate from everyone else. The lines, boundaries and barriers – the rules – were set up as a way to give shape and structure to the people of God. They were set up as an invitation to participate in holiness. What they became was a way to keep people out.

The people on the inside used them against the people on the outside in an effort to keep themselves pure. They forgot that they were an invitation.

God attempts to correct that when he tells Isaiah that his salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth. This light being shone to all nations is an invitation to come and see. Saying that his salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth is another way of saying, “All are welcome.”

Over in Matthew 7, Jesus says that the gate and road that lead to destruction is wide and easy, and many take it; but the gate and road that leads to life is narrow and hard and few find it. I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t misinterpreted that passage.

Lines, boundaries and barriers – rules – are easy to find and are an attempt to make our lives easier. It's often easy to hide behind them and claim, “Thems the rules.” What's hard is seeing God's plan of universal salvation. What's hard is loving our neighbors as ourselves. What's hard is telling Others, “Come and see.” What's hard is living into an ethos of All are Welcome.

When people go through the Bible to find those easy verses that clearly say who is to be banished or not allowed entry, I wonder. I wonder if blindly following those easy verses will ultimately lead to destruction.

More importantly, I wonder if we are ready to open our eyes and look for what we think are difficult verses to find about welcoming the Other. And I wonder if we as a congregation are really ready to enter the narrow gate and follow the hard road that says, “All are Welcome.”

If we can do that, then I think we will be better equipped to invite everyone to come and see so that God's salvation may indeed reach to the ends of the earth.



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