Preached at Church of the River/ First Unitarian Church, Memphis
May 29, 2016
Any belief system that we call religion must engage humans in a journey that takes them deeper into the experiences of loving and being loved. True religion teaches us to become more merciful toward ourselves and others or it is not worthy of being called a religion. For religion is a way of learning about God, the creator and sustainer of life.
God is love. Love is merciful; love is kind. Love is patient. It does not keep score. Love crosses over and erases the boundary that separates sinners from God. To me, to be a sinner is to fail to recognize how much I am loved. We all tend to fail in that regard from time to time. I know I do.
Jesus was merciful toward all of us… beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, prisoners, ex-felons, homeless men and women, people with mental illness, foreigners, widows, orphans and people with contagious diseases. His inclusiveness was religious, racial, economic and political. He didn’t judge people and stamp them with a label: illegal immigrant, lazy welfare queen, unwed mother, promiscuous drug addict, hopeless bum.
Jesus sat with people considered outcasts and he ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them and enjoyed their company. This was outrageous to the righteous! They criticized him and they criticized his disciples, insisting that they justify their behavior. “Get it right or get out!” the righteous demand. This has nothing to do with God, love or mercy. So what does it have to do with religion?
The early church took quite seriously the mercy of Jesus. The Roman world was amazed at the courage and mercy of Christians in the middle of plagues, war and persecutions. Jesus called “the least of these” into the heart of his redemptive love. And the early Christians were known for following Jesus’ example.
Followers of Jesus opened their hearts and their homes to others because it was their calling. They had been lovingly received into a new way of life, a fuller and freer way of living and being. They had no reason to shut others out of the experience that had embraced them with hope, eliminating their fears and healing their wounds. Faith hoarded is faith destroyed. True faith in the love of God crosses over and erases any boundaries that separate us from one another or from God.
Today’s church no longer seems as clear as it once did about following in the way of Jesus and growing more merciful. I am not sure where we would find Jesus eating today if he came for dinner.
Last Sunday morning, in downtown Memphis, an 18 year old girl (Myneishia Johnson) was walking on Second Street with two of her friends. A man drove by and fired a gun at them. All three were struck by the bullets and Myneishia was dead at the scene. She was due to graduate from Booker T Washington High School this week. Her one-year old son accepted her diploma for her yesterday. His grandmother carried him across the platform.
In reaction to the announcement that this infant would be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma, a Memphis woman named Kelly Griffin wrote to the principal of Booker T. Washington, Alisha Coleman Kriner, saying that Myneishia’s son should not be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma. It would be, in Ms Griffin’s judgement, a celebration of the sin of an unwed mother who was out with friends instead of being home where she belonged. And Ms Griffin went on to add that the father of the infant was not known and this somehow added to her disgust that the child should receive his mother’s diploma..
The principal, Ms Coleman-Kriner, was horrified by the woman’s self-righteousness and by all that Kelly Griffin assumed about this young girl. The principal wrote back to Ms Griffin and set her straight about many things. But some things cannot be set straight by an email. I fear that Ms Griffin, wherever she is and whatever her situation, will need more than an email to connect with the mercy in God’s love.
“I have come,” Jesus said, “to call not the righteous but sinners.” That is what he said. And his words leave us, you and me, Ms Coleman- Kriner, Ms Griffin and all of us, to determine where we are in that statement. Has he come to call us or have we put ourselves outside the sound of his voice, made ourselves too good, too clean, too educated, too wealthy to have him sit with us at the table?
Interesting… The word “sinner” here in the Matthew text can be translated to “outcast.” Jesus is accused of eating with tax-collectors and outcasts. The people at the table where Jesus chose to sit and eat were not morally corrupt or terminally broken people. They were people who had not pleased the rule-keepers, the righteous, the powerful.
They were called “sinners” because they were people who had been cast out of the in-crowd and its power. And Jesus’ strategy is a simple one. He eats with them. He goes where the culture has infused toxic shame and he renders the people there wholly acceptable. No, more than that…wholly favorable.
Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who started and is the executive director of a nonprofit called Homeboy Industries. He loves and supports gang members in Los Angeles and he has been loving them for many years now. He has a thousand stories to tell about the ways that being loved, being called and being included have transformed human lives on the streets and in the poor neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Gregory Boyle, this Jesuit priest, fights despair. His book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, is as inspiring and touching as any book I have ever read. I recommend it to you.
Boyle says that we have come to believe that people grow into being favorable with Jesus, with our creator, with perfect love. We have to work at it, according to popular opinion. We must do things to please God. We must sacrifice and atone for our waywardness in order to be loved and favored by God. We must live a certain way and the externals of our life must illustrate how much God loves us. It will be obvious that we are blessed: nice car, nice clothes, good job, orderly life. No shame.
But Boyle says it’s not like that. We don’t work our way into God’s mercy and love. He points out: The only thing we know about Jesus growing up years is that he grew in wisdom and favor with God. But, Boyle asks, did Jesus work at becoming favorable to God or did he discover, as time went by, that he was in fact wholly favorable to God and had always been so—even as you and I are wholly favorable even now? Even as we all are. Right now.
This good guy priest, Gregory Boyle, serves the Delores Mission, a church that has been vandalized, its walls spray-painted with the words: Wet Back Church. It is a place where gang members gather by the bell tower, homeless and undocumented men and women are fed, and folks arrive at all hours for AA and NA meetings.
One day a man drove up to Delores Mission in a fine car and he got out. He had on very nice clothes. He talked with Boyle, nostalgic for his early life in this neighborhood. He had been baptized in that building and had had his first communion there. He looked around at the people gathered. “Tsk. Tsk.” He said, “You know, this used to be a church.”
According to Boyle, it is now finally a church, a place where our culture’s toxic shame is washed away, a place where lives are transformed by love, a place where everyone has a chance to feel included. It’s a church, a place where people are called to give and receive mercy.
Perfect love passes by us as we go about our daily business, as we struggle to have faith and to sustain our hope. “Come with me,” Love calls us. “Follow me. Have mercy.” And be the church in Memphis.