Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
There are many many many versions of Christianity. And not just denominations like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists; even within something like the United Methodist Church there is a great myriad of ideas about what it means to be the church. For instance: There are 7 UMCs in Staunton, and we could all use the same text on Sunday morning, and just about everything else would be completely different from one another.
But the one thing that might unite all churches, almost more than baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
All you need to do is check a church website, or bulletin, or marquee and you can find a self-made description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. Or just try asking someone about their church and you’re likely to hear: “we love everybody!”
In the United Methodist Church, we like to say we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.
What a righteous slogan.
Inclusivity, being open, they’re quite the buzzwords these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know that they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want to the world to know that we care about the content of one’s character.
But the truth is, there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive (including our own).
A couple weeks ago I preached a sermon on the mission of the church. I made the claim that instead of being consumed by a desire to fill the pews, instead of trying to make the world a better place, the church is called to be the better place that God has already made in the world. And as the better place, church should be the one place where no one is ever lonely. I must’ve said that last part no less than three times from the pulpit.
And when we finished worship, most of us walked up the stairs to the Social Hall for a time of food and fellowship. Like we usually do, a long line was formed and one by one we filled our plates and sat down.
The time difference between proclaiming the sermon and sitting down to eat could not have been more than 30 minutes. And yet there was a young family who were here with us in worship for the very first time, who sat alone in our social hall the entire time. And there was an older gentleman, who has served the needs of this church longer than I’ve been alive, who sat by himself for nearly the entire time.
It is not possible for any church, even St. John’s, to be “inclusive” of everyone. And not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We might not judge others for the stereotypical ways often publicized about the church like being homophobic, or racist, or elitist (though there is plenty of that). No, we also reject others for mental illness, politically different or incorrect views, or for poor social skills and status.
We reject people for all sorts of reasons.
Years ago, when I first entered seminary, I went on a bike ride with some friends to another house full of seminarians. We represented the great mosaic of mainline protestant Christianity and we quickly began addressing why each of us was attracted to the particular church we would serve in the future. The Episcopalian talked about her love of the Book of Common Prayer and being united with Christians all over the world who say the exact same words whenever they get together. The Baptist talked about the beauty of believer’s baptism and getting to bring adults into God’s flock.
One of the Methodists, me, talked about the wonder of God’s prevenient grace, a love that is offered to all without cost or judgment. But then I went on to express my chief disappointment: Our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I joked about how many Methodist churches regularly lock their doors, how many of them are filled with people whose minds are already made up about God and others, and how many of them have people with hearts that have no desire to be open to the strange new reality of God’s kingdom.
To be honest, I got pretty fired up about it. After all, it was the beginning of seminary and I was trying to show off.
But I meant what I said. Our slogan is something we can strive for, but it is not a fair description of who we are. There will always be a newcomer who sits in a pew by herself without anyone coming over to say hello. There will always be a family that risks being ostracized by coming to church only to being judged from afar. There will always be sermon series that make people feel like they are not welcome into the fold of God’s grace.
So I went on and on about this until I looked at the other Methodist whose face had turned bright red. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He paused and then said, “My Dad was on the committee at General Conference that created our slogan. I think it’s the best thing about the United Methodist Church.”
We have a slogan, a nice and pretty slogan that we should strive for, but oftentimes we fall short. When we fall short, we do so because of sin. Sin captivates us in a way that makes it virtually impossible for any church to “unconditionally accept” everyone who comes through the door.
We judge others based on physical and outward appearance. We make assumptions about families for a myriad of reasons. We shake our heads in disgust about couples that do not fit the normative mold that society has established.
And we should be cautious about advertising or describing ourselves as such. We might think we’re righteous enough to live by the slogan, we can even hope for it, but we are far from it.
Only Jesus, the one in whom we live and move, is capable of a truly open heart, open mind, open door ministry because Jesus was God in the flesh. Jesus was righteous.
But what about Abraham? Paul uses this part of his letter to the Romans to use Abraham as an example of righteousness. Abraham was the one who was called to leave the land of his ancestors and family to go where God called him. Abraham was the one in whom the covenant between God and God’s people was made. Abraham was the one who was promised to become the father of many nations. Abraham was the one who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Should we follow Abraham’s example? Would that make us more inclusive and righteous? Could we keep our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors?
Here’s the thing: Abraham did nothing to earn this honor and distinction from God. As Paul puts it, Abraham has no ground for boasting.
Whenever we read about the story of Abraham, whether in worship or in a bible study, he is often lauded for his journey into the unknown, for his faith and steadfast commitment to the Lord, and for his perseverance through suffering and tribulation. But his relationship with God, his faith being reckoned as righteousness, is only possible because of God’s faith in him. Abraham is righteous because God called him and empowered him to go into a strange new world.
Abraham, rather than being the perfect model for inclusivity and righteousness and faithfulness, is an example of a justified sinner. Abraham is one of many unlikely individuals whom God reshapes for God’s purposes. Abraham is chosen not because of anything he has done, but because of God who can do anything.
God is the one who worked in and through Abraham’s life, and not the other way around. Abraham does not justify himself, or transform himself, or redeem himself. That’s what God does.
And the same holds true for us today.
We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.
This passage, this beautiful piece of theology from Romans, is about more than the example of Abraham and why we need to have faith. Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that God made Abraham righteous. That God has freely poured out grace on the ungodly, people like us. And that God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us and to the world is grossly unmerited and undeserved, and yet it is given to us.
She came to church pretty regularly but she kept to herself. She’d sit off at the end of a pew and keep her head down so as not to attract too much attention. Whenever it was time to sing, she would stand up with everyone else but her voice never made it higher than a whisper. When it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer she would properly bow her head and mouth the words. But whenever the congregation was invited to the front to receive communion, she never left her seat.
Most of the church was preoccupied with thoughts about their own sins or about where they would eat lunch after the service to notice the woman who remained in her pew while they were feasting on the body and the blood. But the pastor noticed.
After a couple months he caught her after church, and wanted to know why she participated in almost every part of worship, but not in communion. She said, “I don’t feel like I deserve it.”
That, my friends, is the whole point. We don’t deserve it. You don’t, and I don’t. None of us have earned God’s salvation, there’s no list of things we can check off in order to get into heaven. This bread and this cup, the cross and the empty tomb, they are unmerited and undeserved gifts from God to us.
We cannot have a church that is open hearts, open minds, and open doors because we are already in it. Our presence, our sinfulness, makes it impossible to be a totally inclusive community.
Only Christ, only God, only the Spirit have open hearts, open minds, open doors. Only the triune God opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. Only the triune God opens up our eyes to view others without judgment or wrath or fear or anger. Only the triune God opens the doors of the church to the faithful community, to feast at the table that gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.
Only the triune God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. To God be the glory. Amen.