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Be the Church: Embrace Diversity

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Be the Church: Embrace Diversity

This is a reflection on radical hospitality, broken pieces, and being fed.

I want to start by noting that there are many lenses through which we could talk about diversity:

  • Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “The condition of having or being composed of differing elements VARIETY especially the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”[1]
  • Our own Open and Affirming statement proclaims that—

We have a commitment to welcome all people here, whoever they are, wherever they are on life’s journey. We are an open and affirming congregation, which means, in our official language: ‘We welcome persons of all ages, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and church backgrounds to participate in the life and ministry of our church.’”[2]

Over the past few years, we have gathered together to talk about issues of racism. We have taken the risk to study the bible and compassionately learn about pressing topics such as white privilege and the Doctrine of Discovery. Many people at Memorial have participated in Justified Anger’s 9-week course on “Black History for a New Age.” Then, a couple of Sundays ago, we put our love into action, and five people from Memorial made time to host a booth at Pride Fest in Madison (Oh, and I can’t forget that our unofficial mascot, Minnie, the adorable, little, squirmy, furry Shih-Tzu, also showed up at Pride Fest to offer hugs and wet, welcoming dog kisses to all who stopped by!).   

Today’s reading from Luke is all about radical hospitality. In her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass writes that “… the Gospel of Luke (and especially the story of Jesus seeing and calling out Zacchaeus) emphasizes… “a deeply political story, one of the most trenchant social critiques of Roman quid pro quo patronage in the whole of the New Testament. Indeed, in his encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus reveals a conflict between the Roman system of gratitude (which was this hierarchical ladder you needed to try to climb up to survive) and an alternative vision of thanksgiving.”[3]

For in the first century as a Jew living under Roman occupation, the only way Zacchaeus would have gotten rich would have been by buying his way up. As a lower-status person, Jesus did the unthinkable. He stopped to talk to Zacchaeus. And then Jesus… this lower-status person… invites Zacchaeus to dinner. Bass notes that, “… the crowds watching this encounter were shocked an angry… Lower-status people never invited their superiors to a meal… In a moment, Jesus turned (Zacchaeus’) world upside down: Who was the guest and who was the host?”[4]

In the same way, Jesus turns the hierarchy upside-down in today’s reading: Who does God invite to the Table? At the abundant banquet God provides, is there anyone whom we should not invite? This is a radical suggestion on  Jesus’ part—that ALL are welcome.

In addition to radical hospitality, I want to talk about broken pieces. Or, maybe I should say “diversely abled” pieces. Or, maybe I am just responding to our culture’s distorted view of who we are as individuals formed in God’s image.

Have you stopped by the Fellowship Hall recently? If not, I invite you to do so after worship. We are hosting a traveling exhibition from Arts for All Wisconsin in the hall the next two months. Today, as we reflect on “who is invited” and how we are to “embrace diversity” as people who follow Jesus, we have the chance to focus on what Arts for All describes as the “the universal and essential language that challenge(s) people to… celebrate the diversity of human society…”[5] Those splinters in our lives that reveal God’s image in beautifully unique ways.

The “broken pieces” story that I want to tell you about includes CDs (compact discs). Remember those? The shiny, round, discs that held music and audio books? In days of mp3 files, iTunes, and YouTube, CDs are a nearly an obsolete image for me to use for a sermon, so I am going to take advantage of being able to tell you this story while I can!

A couple of years ago at a middle school youth-group retreat, one of the break-out sessions was an opportunity to talk about that “tough stuff” in our lives. This was a time to think about the messiness of “figuring out who I am,” my passions, my sexuality, my gender, my “me created by God,” intertwined with the bullying, the broken family situations, the loss of beloved a grandparent, parent, sibling, friend… the encounters with drugs, violence… all the “THIS” that happens in our lives.

Over the course of the day, there were four different groups of teenagers that participated in the “tough stuff” conversations. At the beginning of each, the youth were asked to gather in silence. In the quiet, they were to take a piece of a CD off of the table in the entry way. Now, these were not complete CDs. These were large, sharp(ish), fragmented pieces of CDs that had been broken.

In the stillness, gathered in a circle, each person was asked to reflect on an aspect of their life that was broken. After a scripture reading, prayer, and (if they wished) sharing their personal story, they each glued their fragmented piece of the CD within the border of a heart that had been penciled onto a large canvas. At the end of the day, as we gathered for worship, this heart, this large shiny, reflective, uneven—but whole—heart was beautifully displayed at the front of the sanctuary. All of the hurts, uncertainties, anger, grief… all of the “all” of the emotions shared in a safe space throughout that day, that “all” was held in this sacred heart.

Brené Brown, says that, “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.”[6] It was with this sense of love and belonging that we gathered that night and had communion. Great love. Holy belonging. The courage to be… imperfect. And we were fed.

THIS is the ministry that Memorial UCC has quietly woven into its being. THIS is the ministry that I want to affirm in YOU today. As we finish our summer worship series on Be the Church, we come to the Table to Be the Church (and) Embrace Diversity as we break bread.

And in this place, there is a ministry of radical hospitality that we are already doing, albeit quietly, that I want to lift up. In the UCC it is known by a couple of different phrases: “Widening the welcome,” being “accessible to all” (or A2A). The UCC’s Disabilities Ministries notes that, “A2A is as much about becoming attitudinally welcoming to people with disabilities and mental health issues as it is about working to make our buildings physically and (our programs) accessible to persons with disability.”[7] This ministry “…envisions a world in which all people are included in the fullness of life because they are (all… each and every one…) created in the image of God.”[8]

Thus, I want to retell a portion of Jesus’ parable using a blend of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Luke 14 and my own words:

Jesus, “turned to the host. ‘The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out…’”

Welcome those with cognitive differences – people with Down Syndrome, those impacted by fetal alcohol syndrome, or the lingering developmental effects of neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome to the Table.

In our neurodiversity, invite those with cerebral palsy, attention deficit and those with social language differences, such as people who are autistic, to break bread. {note – I will admit that I am still learning about the preferred “people first” language for those with autism… some of whom prefer to be called “autistic”}

Come, eat here with those who have mental health challenges: depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia.

You! Set the table! Invite people who have acquired brain injuries, people who have suffered a stroke, those who have Parkinson’s Disease, and people with sensory disorders such as hearing loss, visual challenges, and people with neuropathy who struggle with pain.

Open this Table to those for whom movement disorders create barriers, and to those for whom memory loss, or dementia, makes remembering what to do at the Table difficult.

In all of our beautifully reflective, uneven hearts, in all of our hurts, uncertainties, anger, grief… all of the “all” of the emotions shared here, in this sanctuary, may there be a sense of love and Holy Belonging for all—and the courage to be imperfect.

Do this, (Jesus says) and “You’ll be—and experience—a blessing.” (Luke 14:12-14, The Message).


~Pastor Kris

Reflection on Luke 14:1, 7-14 offered on September 1, 2019

[1] “Diversity.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diversity.

[2] Memorial United Church of Christ, n.d. http://www.memorialucc.org/who-we-are/.

[3] Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: the Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 156.

[4] Ibid. 158-59.

[5] “Arts for All Wisconsin.” ARTS for ALL Wisconsin > Home, n.d. https://www.artsforallwi.org/programs/traveling-exhibition.

[6] “Sermon Seeds September 1 2019.” United Church of Christ. https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_1_2019.

[7] United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries, n.d. https://uccdm.org/a2a/.

[8] United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries, n.d. https://uccdm.org.