The Healing Power of Inclusive Love
Last night I met for the first time with a group of twenty-one people who are new to The Episcopal Church and want to learn more about what we believe. Another group will also begin meeting in Mid-February to do the same. I always begin these groups by asking people to share what brought them to St. Timothy’s for the first time and why they came back. Without exception, the people who gathered last night said that they came to St. Timothy’s because they were longing to be part of a church that really believed what our sign says: “God loves you. No exceptions. Love your neighbors. No exceptions.”
I can’t tell you how moving it was to listen to them. Why? In different ways, each of these people had personally experienced the pain of not being included by one church or another, or could no longer be part of a church that didn’t fully include everyone. Some had been excluded because of their sexual orientation or gender. Some because they were divorced. Some because they disagreed with certain teachings of the church. They came to St. Timothy’s the first time because they were longing to be part of a church that truly believes that everyone is a child of God and should be unconditionally welcomed. The message on our sign is what brought them through the door. They came back because the message was embodied in the welcome they received.
Some in that group came here at great risk. If at some point in the past you have been diminished by the church, your worst fear is that it will happen again. Your worst fear is that what the church says and how they live will be disconnected. It is extraordinarily healing when those fears don’t come true and a person is welcomed as they are.
Of course, the mission of the church is not just that the church community itself be a place where everyone is welcomed unconditionally. The mission of the church from the time of the apostles has been to help God make the broader neighborhood a place where everyone is included. In Paul’s words, God has “entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5: 19b-20a). Therefore, Christians are called to be a part of the political process in this and every land. Our calling is to advocate for policies that make our country and our world hospitable to all. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Christians were at the forefront of the civil rights movement because God was calling them to break down the walls that divide us. Today many Christians in this country and throughout the world are advocates for breaking down the walls that divide nations and peoples from one another.
Last night’s meeting was a reminder of the impact a church can have on people when it embodies Christ’s radically inclusive love. It was also a reminder to me that the church—St. Timothy’s included—has not always been welcoming, and just how damaging that can be. Every congregation needs to constantly ask, “How are we excluding people?” “How are we diminishing people without even knowing it?” Every church has its blind spots. The Good News is that God has a habit of sending congregations people who will challenge the congregation’s capacity to welcome. People who are difficult. People who have socio-economic challenges. People who have different theological perspectives. People who have different politics. People who have different worship and music desires. God sends us people who expand our capacity to love and as a result we become more and more what God is calling the church to be.