January 7, 2024
Scripture Reading: II Corinthians 7:2-7
This morning, I want to return to a theme I’ve used again and again in the now over five years I’ve been your pastor: “Beloved Community”. It’s not that I think you haven’t been paying attention – you have and I keep hearing the phrase from one or the other of you and I am grateful. But none of us have begun to master the topic and I have one new idea I want to share with you.
You heard the scripture reading this morning from II Corinthians. You may already know that Paul, the author of II Cor. was sort of a supervisor over a number of Christian churches in the region around Israel and the eastern half of the Mediterranean. In this text he was trying to smooth out some tension in the church at Corinth. He and the church had gotten themselves crosswise, accusations were circulating, mistrust and anger. After he had been as honest as he could about his intentions, he had one more important issue on his mind. He loved those people but he needed reassurance that they also still loved and valued him. “You have such an important place in my heart, but I need to know if you can make a place in your heart for me.”
That honest but deep heart question points to perhaps the most fundamental issues in any place where Beloved Community is the goal. “What place do I have in your heart and are you able to create a place for me?”
To talk about that, I want to tell you two stories – both true and both happened to me.
One of them happened when we were in Louisville, Ky. We found an attractive small church within walking distance of our home and we attended there for about two years. So, we experienced what I had never before experienced: I was a visitor looking to find a church that suited me. People were nice, the pastor had great sermons, and people said that they were glad we were there. They did all the right things, in a way.
But there was something missing. It was as if there was a barrier somewhere. We reached out to people, went to a couple of parties, and we suggested to a couple we thought might make good friends, that maybe we should plan a time to share a meal. They seemed eager, but never made any effort to follow up. We tried a couple more times with the same result. It was as if we had a place in their heads, but not their hearts. It was hurtful, really and we eventually left.
That experience wasn’t the decisive factor in our leaving – it was just an example of what we experienced in the whole church. There was a level of acceptance there, but it seemed there was a place beyond which we could not go into the heart of the people.
The other experience was when I was a Methodist pastor in Cincinnati. The church there made the decision to be one of the sponsoring churches for IHS – Interfaith Hospitality Network. It was a system where maybe 20 homeless people would be housed in a church for a week, fed and sheltered there. During the day, they were out job hunting. We fed them breakfast and an evening meal. After maybe 3-4 years of doing that twice a year, I began to notice something.
My church people were so generous with their building, donations of food, help with blankets etc. But every meal we served, it was the same: Church people on one side of the counter, homeless people on the other. They never (or seldom) sat together or ate together!
It was a wonderful effort, but I’ve wondered since how many lives were transformed – either among the homeless or among the church people? I’m thinking as important as jobs are, a new job is not what will transform either the giver or receiver.
I have come to believe that for one reason or another their hearts were closed to their guests and the guests sensed it.
This is a complicated question: “Can you open your heart to me?” It’s not just about the matter of an open heart across class barriers or other things like ethnic barriers, color barriers, education or political barriers. It is a relevant question even when people are pretty homogeneous (like we are here at St. Johns).
I have to believe that when people come through our door as guests and visitors, there are all sorts of questions on their minds in that first visit: Where’s the bathroom? Do you have anything for seniors, kids? What do you believe? Is the preacher any good? All of that is important, but I believe that beneath all of those is the most important question of all: “Can you make room in your hearts for me?”
And if you peel back the layers of our differences across the United States of America – of the differences around the world between cultures and national identities, there is a cry among those who are different from others: “Can you make room in your hearts for me?”