At church this morning, we celebrated All Saints’ Day. Here are two items about my pastor’s sermon this morning.
A. The pastor was telling us about a woman he knew in West Virginia who was called “Granny.” Granny was welcoming to everyone, as she invited people to sit on her porch. The pastor shared that even the cool middle-school students sat on Granny’s porch! The pastor was relating that Granny was someone who brought people together during the time of racial segregation. She herself was a biracial woman who taught in the African-American school, but she was invited to teach at the predominantly white school when the schools were integrated. The pastor said that he himself hopes to be like Granny: someone who is a welcoming, accepting presence to all people, whatever their walks of life may be.
It is good for me to hear that kind of message, even though I know that during the course of the week I will doubt that I am able to accept everybody, and I will probably resent Christianity because I think that it places on me the impossible burden of accepting, liking, and being a friend to everybody. “I don’t want to be around so-and-so,” I may think to myself. “So-and-so is an ass. It is a matter of psychological self-protection!” I can also be choosy about whom I accept, since I am aware that I am comfortable in certain social situations around certain people, and uncomfortable in certain social situations around certain people. “Oh, these people are too educated for me! I’m not smart enough to be around them!” “Oh, these people are unfamiliar with my topics of interest. I wouldn’t know what to talk with them about!” “I wouldn’t be able to fit in around these rich people! They’d look down on me!” “These Christians would judge me!” “These atheists would be condescending towards me, or make me look and feel intellectually inferior!”
These thoughts will be a part of me. I am not sure if I can change that. Life’s experiences can make a person stronger, but they can also scar a person. Still, it is good for me, at the beginning of the week, to hear another sort of outlook: to hear about someone who tried to be welcoming to everyone, whatever his or her walk of life; to hear about the importance of respecting everyone as a human being, wherever that person may be.
B. As is often the case, the pastor said something that made me ask myself, “What did he mean by THAT?” The pastor was talking about how there is a place for everyone at God’s table, and that God is saving that person’s spot for whenever that person is ready. The pastor was also referring to the small groups’ studies on the Holy Spirit. He was saying that the Holy Spirit is God no longer being distant, for God’s spirit is near. When we cannot sense the Holy Spirit on account of our sin, the pastor was saying, that is not because the Holy Spirit is not there. Rather, we are closing our eyes to the Holy Spirit.
The pastor said, if I heard him correctly, that there is a parable that seems to contradict all this, or at least that seems to contradict the idea of God saving us a seat or keeping the light on for when we are ready to come. He did not say what parable he had in mind. He also did not try to justify contradicting sacred Scripture (if he even believes he is doing that). Some priests and pastors actually do try to justify that, particularly when it comes to the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus can appear rather punitive. “That was just Matthew absorbing his Jewish background,” some say. “That’s not how Jesus really was.” The pastor did not go that route or offer his own explanation, probably because he did not want such a discussion to distract his listeners from the main points he was trying to make.
There are passages in Scripture in which Jesus seems to imply that there comes a point when it is too late to come to God: I think of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25), the door being closed to the evildoers in whose streets Jesus ate and drank (Luke 13:25-27), the man without the wedding garment being thrown out of the banquet (Matthew 22), Jesus telling the workers of iniquity calling him “Lord, Lord” but not doing his Father’s will to depart from him (Matthew 7), and children of the kingdom being cast into outer darkness as many come to eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 8). In the Gospel of John, Jesus did not always seem unconditionally accepting: in John 2:23-24, he does not entrust himself to certain people who believed on account of his miracles, for he knew what was in them.
My pastor is still getting his picture of God from the Scriptures, on some level, for there are passages about love, welcome, and forgiveness.
There are ways that people have tried to reconcile all this. Derek Leman, who was a Messianic rabbi, offered the view in his Daily D’var that some of those hard passages may relate more to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. rather than eternity in heaven or hell. Some may say that Jesus was preaching in light of the Old Covenant, whereas the New Covenant is much more gracious. I remember being on discussion boards for a Christian dating site, and a lady with a Dallas Theological Seminary background was trying to reconcile some of Jesus’ harsh parables with the doctrine of eternal security/once-saved-always-saved. How would a person who believes in eternal security interpret Jesus’ parable about the unprofitable servant being cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25)? “You need to look at the context,” she was saying. I had good experiences on that Christian dating site and I had bad experiences, but I do wish that I could remember what her arguments were.
Anyway, this particular item can delve into all sorts of territory: Should we accept everybody? Can we accept everybody? Is there a place for boundaries, for self-protection, for ensuring that one is not taken advantage of? Where does tough love fit into this? When can “tough love” be a mask for rejecting others and making them feel that the light is not being left on for them? I admit that I should probably accept more people than I do, that I should be more like Granny, even though I could never be totally like her. I can easily fall into the trap of using qualifications as a way to avoid being as accepting as I should be.