A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
September 27, 2015
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year B
At the beginning of this summer I had the rare opportunity to worship alone on a Sunday morning, as an anonymous visitor at a church I had long wanted to check out. I had heard about this church from peers and colleagues whose opinions I trusted – it was, they said, an example of a parish that was (quote) “getting it right” with robust attendance and vibrant ministries. So, I wanted to experience for myself what it was that made this place special and unique. The church is south of downtown Chicago and I arrived at O’Hare Sunday morning, studied my map, and picked what appeared to be the closest metro station to the church. I boarded a train and set off on my way. As the train made its way very slowly across the city, it became clear that I was not going to arrive on time for the primary 9:00 service and I consoled myself with the thought that this would provide me an opportunity to take in their Sunday adult education before attending the late service at 11 – maybe I could learn a thing or two. When the train finally did arrive at what I had thought was the closest station to the church, I realized I had vastly misinterpreted my map – I am not Magellan. The station was in the heart of South Chicago, approximately two miles according to my floating dot and an oversized pin on my phone’s GPS, from the church. With no buses headed my way, and no way to reroute on the train, I had nothing to do but set out on a two-mile trek through what locals affectionately call “the hood” in my Sunday’s best in the muggy heat of a summer’s morning in Chicago.
By the time the church was in view, it was approaching 10:30. I consoled myself again that though I had now missed most of Adult education, I might be able to take a short break, refresh my sweaty face with cold water from the men’s room, grab a cup of coffee, and wander through the church to see what they’re up to. But as I approached my heart sank – the doors were open, and the sound of organ music and singing were pouring out into the street. It was clear that church was well under way. Low and behold, on this the Sunday after Memorial Day, the church had switched to its summer service schedule, and the 10 AM service was now almost half over. I walked into the narthex and searched for an inconspicuous place to stash my suitcase. An usher scowled at me – or maybe I imagined he was scowling. The windows into the church were clear and I could see from the narthex that there were very few seats left in the crowd. I entered the church, and then realizing I would need a bulletin and had, as yet, not been offered one, I returned to the narthex to politely ask of the usher, if I might have one. Then I entered again. Trying not to disrupt, I stood for a moment scouring the nave from the back, looking for an empty seat near the edge of a row. As I approached, it was clear that it would not be easy. Folks avoided eye contact like I was trying to collect signatures for my petition in the street. When after what felt like several long minutes, I finally found a spot that required stepping over several worshippers, avoiding toes and finally coming to rest still sweaty, rumpled, and feeling just ever so slightly out of place and a teensy bit unwelcomed.
Now, I’m sure that my experience, as it was the product of a series of unfortunate missteps, is not the norm. After all judging by the packed pews, they must be doing something right. But, the experience was still instructive, that while we may aim as communities of faith, to be welcoming and hospitable, we still often place unnecessary obstacles and barriers between our churches and those who seek to find refuge in them. I’m positive that that is not the case at St. John’s. I’d like to believe that no visitor or guest has ever encountered the experience I had this summer. But, even still, we can always be working on being more welcoming and hospitable and receptive to all God’s children – faithful, seekers, doubters, or whoever they might be. And so, when the idea emerged during the strategic planning process a year ago to implement a “Scoot Over” campaign, the New Member Commission jumped on it and ran with it. The idea behind it is as simple as it is theologically astute and profound – that in order for the church to truly be the church, we have to create room in our pews and in our hearts for those who are drawn here, room for visitors and strangers and pilgrims and the wounded and those who appear to be lost. This project is an intentional practice for our community to remove and tear down the barriers between the church and the world, to make room for sanctuary and rest and healing and restoration that can only happen in places like Church. This morning and in the weeks to come, we are practicing scooting over, not to make room for folks to follow us or be like us or conform to us – we’re scooting over, because, as the gospel tells us this morning, we have been commanded to remove all stumbling blocks that would keep any of God’s children from coming to Jesus.
The disciples come to Jesus to complain that another, an unnamed exorcist is casting out demons in Jesus’ name – and they are frustrated. “Jesus!” they tattle, “Jesus! Someone is doing works of mercy in your name. He is speaking truth to the evil powers of this world and casting out that evil. Jesus!” they whine, “but he doesn’t follow US.”
The church can be a pretty proprietary place at times. Perhaps not here, but no doubt stories abound in the wider body of Christ of where Christians have guarded ministries and created boundaries to participation in the life of their faith community. You can’t join the vestry because you’ve not been here long enough. You can’t sit there, that’s my family’s pew. You can’t lead this ministry, you don’t have the background to understand it. You aren’t spiritual enough or Episcopalian enough or old enough – Jesus! He can’t do that he isn’t following us!
But, at the end of the day the Church doesn’t exist, Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church doesn’t exist, so that folks can come follow us. We exist so that we and others, indeed whoever comes seeking refuge and sustenance, can find and follow the One we call Savior and friend, so that we can all follow Jesus the Christ. That’s why we’re here.
Like many of you, I have been captivated this week by Pope Francis’ visit to the US. I may not be a member of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do I often understand or appreciate all that it teaches and does, but like so many non-catholics and Catholics alike, I have been drawn to the teaching and witness of Pope Francis. Here is a man, who on so many levels seems to understand that the Church is supposed to point to the mercy, forgiveness, welcome, and love of Jesus. Here is a man who lifts up these things not only in his preaching and teaching, but in small acts of humility and gentleness. You have probably seen the stories of the numerous times he eschewed meeting with the powerful, or stopped along his way to give time to someone that the wider world might not have valued or cared about, and was present to them in a way that the church is called to be. He made room. One story in particular captured our hearts this week when he paused his motorcade to allow a small five-year old girl, the daughter of a migrant worker, to press through the crowd and invited her past his security, so that he could hear her story, bless her, and hear her heartfelt appeal for mercy to migrants and immigrants in this country.
I said that the scoot over campaign is theologically profound as it is simple. Scooting over is just one way we honor and live into Jesus’ appeal that we remove stumbling blocks between God’s beloved children and him. We not only create space when we scoot over or when we welcome, we scoot over when we offer that cool drink of water to the thirsty, when we offer warm food and a safe space to the hungry and the homeless.
The church is called to be the Body of Christ, the welcoming body present and open and ready for a world in need.
For the refugee and migrant we scoot over when we extend support and Christ’s mercy through the work of this place.
For black lives who have been told by the world time and again that they do not matter, we scoot over when we seek after justice for these and so many others in our work as the church.
For gay people and straight people, men and women, young and old, who have been broken and ground down by the world – we scoot over every time we create space for rest and love
So, we create space, we scoot over, we welcome all God’s beloved children.