Inviting the Uninvited

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Rev. Peter JB Carman, Binkley Baptist Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Sermon delivered at Barbee’s Chapel Harvest Word Church and Ministries
November 8, 2009
Texts: Mark 10:23-31; Galatians 3:23-29

I

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia about baptism, it seems he had a whole lot more than water on his mind. He was writing to a church divided right from the very beginning. While he was welcoming in the non Jewish pagans, others weren’t so sure. While he was trying to help negotiate the beginnings of a multi-cultural Christian faith, others were, even from the very beginning, more comfortable with those who were their own people. Jews had every reason to be suspicious of Romans—after all they had suffered under the hand of their occupation governments for many years. That world was also divided into slave and free—and within those groups as many grades of society as you can imagine. Women and men lived in separate universes too—and the one the women lived in was pretty well under the heel of the one the men lived in.

But the apostle reminded the new Christians in Galatia that those were the old rules—and today was a new day. If they were willing to take on the sign of baptism—of death to their old lives and resurrection to a new life in Christ, then it was about a whole lot more than just a spiritual good feeling as they came up out of the waters. It was about putting on Christ, wearing the mind of Jesus, like a whole new set of clothes. They were in a whole new world now—and the old divisions of freedom and slavery, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Greco- Roman: none of these categories had a purchase over them anymore. They were free to be mature people of faith now, free to enter a new larger world of partnership and mutual understanding and equal respect and regard.

Only one problem. When has it ever been? When we were talking over the Galatians passage the other day in a bible study at Binkley Church, my wife Lynn, also a preacher, pointed out that when we read these words of Paul, we need to be honest with ourselves and the world. Where do we actually live this new identity in Christ? Even two thousand years later, we have seen precious little of the kind of new humanity that the writer pointed the Galatians towards all those years ago. Even Paul himself had trouble clinging to the vision. This is the same Paul who is reputed to have harshly limited the role of women in the church—or was that his followers a generation later? This is the same Paul who apologetically told a slave to go back to his master, and the master to treat the slave, well, treat him nice—not quite the radical call to unity and freedom in God we read in Galatians. And in the years since, on average, we Christians, we haven’t done much better. And yet—and yet—the vision lives on, of a Christianity big enough for all kinds of humans. The vision lives on of a way of justice and peace that refuses to allow the fences and walls and ditches of the past to divide us anymore. The vision lives on of a new humanity, a new heaven and a new earth, wherein we will cast off the old armor, and hammer the spears into pruning hooks and the swords into scythes for the harvest and smash the shackles of oppression and inequity and tear down the fences of wealth and poverty.

Sometimes the things that divide us are as basic as race and as complicated as cultural differences. Sometimes it’s wealth and class and privilege…and the very human tendency of wanting to protect things the way they are. We often grow numb or look the other way, but deep down in our souls, we know what is right with God—and that these divisions, these places of hatred, mistrust and ancient oppression need to be taken off. Set aside, so we can be baptized into a new way, so we can be immersed in the rivers of God’s justice and the flowing streams of grace.

II

His name, he said, was Seven. He came to church wearing a dirty white winter jacket and black do-rag.  “I have been on the street a long time. My girlfriend and I want to visit here. We are thinking about getting married. But I don’t know if you want me here—I’ve been a gang member since I was fifteen.”

Her name was Htee Shee. She was a nurse. “This is my brother, Kya Htoo; he was a deacon in the church in our refugee camp. He says that he will help however he can with the Karen people here.” I respond: “Is Kya Htoo able to preach?” Pause. Rapid conversation. “Kya Htoo says to tell you he has not been a preacher before. But this is a new situation. He will do his best.”

Her name was Diane, she was a veterinarian. “The first time our family came to your church, we had heard that there were other black members. But that was the day that Reverend Majors was on vacation and all of the other African American folk must have been on vacation or home sick. But we were so warmly welcomed that Rex said he wanted to go back. He was looking forward to being in worship next week. Rex never said that before, not in any church. And look, we are still here. When I lost my triplets, I was glad I had a church.”

His name was Abraham. He came to us when he was eighteen. He grew up wandering in the deserts of an African war. “I found your church because I was bicycling by, to another church where I was supposed to speak about being a refugee from Sudan. But I did not have a church of my own. And so I said to God—this will be my church now.”

Over the past seventeen years, I was privileged to be part of a church that was being forced to embrace a new approach—it was adapt or die. An historically mostly white and fairly well-to-do church, the neighborhood had changed, the congregants had moved to the suburbs, and the church went from over three thousand members in the 1930s to two thousand in 1957 to three hundred by the time I got there in 1992. Meanwhile we had drug traffic and prostitution just outside the church doors; substandard rental housing on the street, and an atmosphere of fear all around. We needed to take seriously that we were in a diverse neighborhood! And a poor neighborhood. We needed to figure out what it meant to be a church for all God’s children.

A significant group of African American neighbors joined the church over the first several years. We had a good and gifted group of lesbian and gay people become a part of the church, one by one and two by two, some Black and some White and one Latina. And then in the last few years we had a large number of tribal people from Burma decide this could be their church too. God brought them. They were Chin and Karen refugees—farmers who had lost everything in war, and come to a new country to start over. And they were already Baptists…looking for a church home.

None of it was easy. When we first started a Gospel Choir with a volunteer leader, it did not sit well with everyone in the church. Some in our chancel choir joined—and sang in both. Others had their musical sensibilities bent. When the kids in the youth group started crossing the urban suburban lines, with some who were college bound and others who were seemingly on a high speed ride to dropping out, it created some tensions. When our Associate Pastor wanted to start a more informal Sunday afternoon service in Black Church tradition, some feared division. When we had to negotiate three languages in worship, and decide if our main service should be all in one language or accommodate our Chin and Karen brothers and sisters with singing our hymns in all three tongues, and having a little interpreting going on, I started to hear “All we hear about these days is Karen this and Karen that…” I was excited, a year later, to hear one of our devout members says “I feel like I don’t know anything about their culture or history—why don’t we hear more?”

I sometimes wonder if we there in one Rochester neighborhood hadn’t been confronted by the situation of “Adapt or die”, we would have risen to the challenge of inviting the uninvited, however imperfectly. I want to think we would have. I want to believe that we were driven, compelled, by the fact that we had clothed ourselves in Christ, having been raised from the waters of baptism to a new life. I want to say that—but I don’t know. What I do know is that I have seen what happens when a church decides to move out of its own comfort zone and welcome the stranger—the one who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, dress like us, nor even pray or sing like us.

III

A long time ago Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to follow him they must be prepared to give up everything familiar, even family and kin. In the words of an old hymn by Martin Luther, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also….” But Jesus told them that along with the painful realities of loss and even persecution, they would be inheriting one hundred fold a new family, new richness, new life in community.

We are seated together today, Binkley Baptist members and Barbee’s Chapel members. In your hands are a Vision statement recently adopted by our shared ministry group. A handful of us have dared to use the word “Koinonia” to describe our vision of what we are called to share: Koinonia! That means the most intimate kind of Christian community, households of faith willing to share joy and suffering alike.

We share a vision. We share a ministry group. And we also share a common dilemma. How do we start to reach out, from our own congregations, not just to each other but to those around us who either have not been invited, or have not FELT invited? It isn’t just about how we relate to each other—but how we start to go deeper in inviting the uninvited. How do we reach out to those who do not sound like us, pray like us, those who come from another world? And what is holding us back?

The thing is, that there is a vision that still haunts us—a call that still compels us. There is a Love that has seized hold of us. And we cannot let assumptions or fear stop us from inviting our neighbors. We need to put on Christ! It is one thing to say that we welcome all. It is another several steps to actually welcome one. It is another half a mile at least, to go meet our neighbors and invite them to consider being part of a Vision. And it is another full mile to walk in our neighbors’ shoes—and embrace the change that comes when we really allow someone to come be a part of us, to bring a different perspective, to sing a different song, to raise a new concern.

“Now, hear a new thing I will do,”
Said God, so long ago.
“I’ll let the rivers of my love
Into the desert flow.
The deaf shall hear, the mourners laugh,
The prisoner sing new songs.
I’ll bring you round from distant lands:
For this my spirit longs.”

“Through the deep sea I’ll carve a path,
Where armies shall lie down.”
Thus speaks the God of shattered swords,
Who stills the battle sound.
“Do not recall your ways of old,
Nor turn to Babylon,
But turn instead to love your God–
Redemption is begun.”

“I am your God, the Holy One,
From Pharaoh all I saved.
I’ll break through every iron bar
That keeps each one enslaved.”
A new creation is begun,
Now fade you captive past;
Lord, lead the way through wilderness,
Our hearts renew at last!

We see the new thing You have done;
Let hearts and hands confess
The streams of hope our God does pour
Upon the wilderness!
Let all creation rise to sing
Thanks to the living Lord;
Let Justice be our sweet refrain
And Love God’s final word.


This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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