Romans 8: 38-39
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t and life can’t. The angels can’t and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I am still thinking back over years of experiences at Sixty-First Avenue UMC, especially since the days grow close for its closing. As these days of June pass and I realize the import of what this looks like, what it means, memories literally just shake free, wanted or not. Some give me actual pain because of their seeming lack of resolution.
I can remember clearly encouraging and inviting adults who cared for the children we tutored, be they guardians, parents or grandparents, to attend church with us on Saturday evening. Too many times their answer was “they couldn’t go to church, they had sinned too much” or some variation on those words that indicated a lack of worthiness they felt necessary to enter the sanctuary. They often attended celebrations or holiday meals in the common rooms but very often never entered sanctuary space.
Now, as time is afforded this displaced congregation an opportunity to speak at Saturday evening worship (which has always been the case) they also have a common theme running through their fears, their sadness, their uncertainty. They, too, indicate a feeling of unworthiness to attend a new church. To become part of a new congregation. Some concern is tied to what they wear—will their clothes be acceptable? How they look. Their lack of formal education. Their lack of financial resources. They mention not being “special” and not feeling welcome or comfortable outside this cocoon they have known so long. This church did indeed accept them. This church loved them. I am using the term church rather than being more specific because to them it was the “church.” It was all inclusive to all those who attended there, who visited there, who served there, who preached there, who loved there. They were at home. They were accepted as they were and where they were. Most importantly, they did not have to be anyone else; who they were was more than enough!
One recent Saturday evening, we were asked to “pass the peace” by saying “Peace be with you, God loves you.” For those not familiar, this is common to most Methodist congregations and is a time of hand shaking and sharing with one another. It is lovely. But this particular evening, a homeless gentleman walked over to shake my hand and say the words, which he did….but then he added “Miss Jackie, I know God loves you but don’t think he loves me”! I answered by hugging him and saying I knew God loved him. He asked me how I knew. I told him I knew because the Bible teaches us this very message in many, many ways. He sat with me the rest of the service.
But, I went home so sad. I have long seen a thread that feeds through those people our society deems poor, a word I actually abhor. How can we attribute that word to God’s children who may not have financial resources but are rich in so many other ways? Their spirits are rich. They are disciples without even knowing it. They live it. They have no poverty of compassion, of love, of care. They do often have a poverty of hope. But that is real.
It gives pause for how we “do church,” for what message we send, intentioned or not, in making our friends in Christ feel “less than.” Our societal boundaries and values are so ingrained with what we have and how we look and who we know….our educational levels, our jobs, our homes. Nouwen says we will only be remembered for who we were. Yikes! Take all that away and who are we? So many are overcoming our cultural conditioning and enjoying relationships across boundaries that are not allowed to divide. Those relationships across time have contributed to what this closing church has been and has become. But, we can all still consider if we are people who judge too quickly. based not on gospel teachings, but on societal teachings? Are we people who might seemingly welcome someone different than we are to our places of worship but do so in a way that is patronizing? Do we know one another’s stories? Do we know what brings joy, what brings sorrow? Do we know who we are together? Not a judgment, just thoughts to consider. For me, too.
My poverty, our poverty is often a lack of engagement.
We are grateful to Pastor Neelley Hicks who has been a shepherd for this congregation, driving them to several worship services over several weeks, visiting and sharing time with congregations to see where they felt hopeful about a future in a new place. They chose to attend and become a part of the congregation at Glencliff UMC.
I happened to read some words from one of my Dad’s journals, written following a long sojourn serving in Haiti and he said:
“You can’t make disciples unless you are a disciple yourself.”