Rev. Sarah Buteux
Photo by Florian Marschoun
October 31, 2021
Proper 26, Year B
To watch this morning’s service, click here
After church this past Sunday, as I was saying my goodbyes to visitors and friends, a man came up the steps to speak with me. To protect his privacy, we’ll call him Stan.
I’ve seen Stan around the church here and there. He’s currently unhoused and has a bed at the Grove Street shelter, but he still comes down town to check on his friends, especially some of the more vulnerable people who are living on the streets. He’s a gentle soul with a loving spirit, and I’ve seen more than one weary person out front lean into him for a hug and a word of encouragement.
Stan shared a little about some of the health struggles he’s going through right now and I listened, but that wasn’t his purpose for seeking me out. What he really came to do was thank me for our hospitality and patience and ask that we not ban people from sleeping on our doorstep.
“I know it hasn’t been easy for you folks, especially with all the stuff that piles up outside, but people feel safe here and I hope they can still sleep outside the church this winter.”
Well when I heard that, I looked him in the eye and said, “ Stan, my hope is that your friends can come sleep inside our church this winter.” And then I showed him a copy of our call to meeting for today. “We’re going to gather next Sunday to decide whether or not we should open our church up to be the emergency cot shelter starting in December.”
Stan looked at me with tears in his eyes. “Can I take some of these?” he asked. He gathered up a few copies of the call to meeting and said, “I want to show these to the people outside. This would be so good. Thank you.”
And then, with his permission, I laid my hands on his shoulders and prayed that God would strengthen and heal him in body, mind, and spirit. We were both crying by this point and through his tears he held up the call to meeting and asked, “How can I help you with this, pastor?”
“If this goes through, I hope you’ll tell your friends that it’s safe to come inside. We’ll want them inside the church – ok? – not outside.”
“Will do,” he said.
“Thank you,” he said.
And he was gone.
I’ve been thinking about that interaction all week as our shelter team has been hammering out the details of this cot-shelter proposal. And I’ve been thinking of Stan all week as I’ve returned again and again to these words in Mark.
If you’ve been in church at all the last few weeks, you know that Jesus has been teaching his disciples that serving others – but most especially serving those on the outside and the underside, the powerless and the outcast – is at the very heart of his mission. It’s why he has come.
And if you’ve been in church you also know that Jesus’ disciples have missed his point over and over and over again. It’s been both eye-opening and heartbreaking to watch them run roughshod over the poor and the needy as they have jockeyed for position in the new kingdom Jesus has promised.
But now we come to these words today that sum up all the law and the prophets. These words that should make it virtually impossible for a disciple of Jesus to miss the point. These words that are, in the words of the Scribe, “more important than all … burnt offerings and sacrifices,” or as we might say now, more important than anything religious or liturgical we might do in church.
“Which commandment is the first of all?” asks the scribe.
“Love, “says Jesus.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now friends, I can point out some interesting things about this passage. Like the fact that this scribe who questions Jesus was from an opposing camp, and yet was able to hear him with respect and learn from him. (There’s a whole sermon in that which would probably be good for us to hear in these polarizing times).
Or I could point out the fact that the scribe asked which is the most important commandment, and Jesus cheated. He named two commandments rather than one. But in doing so he linked them together forever, didn’t he? Yes.
Jesus reinforced, once and for all, that there is no choosing between loving God and loving our neighbor. How you love others is how you love God. Period. Full stop. And I’m sure there’s a whole sermon in there too.
We could make some hay about Jesus’ parting line, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
But the truth is, when it comes to the good word God has for our congregation this morning, there’s really nothing for me to parse here. Some parts of the Bible are hard because they are difficult to understand. Other parts are hard because they are not.
They are perfectly clear, just really difficult to follow.
Well, First Churches, we have been presented with a clear opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves and it will require some work and some sacrifice on our part, and it will not always be easy. And because we are a congregational church, I am well aware that the decision to proceed is not mine to make as your pastor, but ours to make together as people of God.
So really, my only question when I saw this passage was, how do I preach “Love your neighbor as yourself,” without coming across as too heavy handed? I don’t want you to vote in favor of the shelter because you think I think you should or because you think I will be disappointed in you if you don’t. I want you to vote in accordance with what you think God wants us to do.
But in light of the scriptures we’ve been studying together these past few weeks and the scripture before us today, what God is asking of us is so clear to me, that it would actually be dishonest for me to pretend otherwise. I confess I am no longer impartial about this decision.
And maybe I don’t need to be. I think I know you all well enough to trust that you see things as clearly as I do. The truth is, I have not heard any dissent as we have moved forward, because that’s just not who you are. And I want to lift that up and celebrate it for a moment.
Because, you see, I’ve been going to church all my life, but this is the first congregation I’ve ever been part of where we don’t waste our energy fighting about whether or not to do the right thing. We don’t waste our energy debating whether or not God loves and affirms LGBTQ people, or people of other religions, or immigrants, or the earth. We start from the assumption that God loves all of us, and we make our way forward from there.
It may take us some time to come to a consensus about how to do the right thing or how much money we can reasonably spend in our pursuit of the right thing, or which right thing to do next, but First Churches, as I have watched you work in the world these past seven years, what I have seen is a congregation that takes the energy other Christians waste on debate, and pour it out into the lives of our neighbors who need it most.
I love that about you. And I trust that impulse in all of you.
I don’t say that to put pressure on anyone to vote one way or the other. I say that because that is simply who you are. You know what it is to love your neighbor as yourself.
And I don’t get any credit for that. That’s who you were when I came. And what a joy and relief it was for this weary pastor to find you when I did.
What a joy and a relief to find a congregation where I can worship, like we did last Sunday, preach a challenging word about ableism like I did last Sunday, stay after church for a concert that celebrated black voices, like the one we had last Sunday, and then make my way out on to the front steps to join Cathedral in the Night, a ministry we host every Sunday.
What a joy and a relief to be a part of a church that doesn’t miss the point but shows the world week in and week out what love looks like in public.
Genevieve and I arrived out front for Cathedral just in time for communion. As we stood there listening to pastor Steph proclaim the words of institution, Betty Christian – you all remember Betty? Yeah it was good to see her – Betty made her way over and tucked herself in under my arm.
As I held her close, I reached out and put my hand on Rod’s shoulder, one of our friends who used to attend Common Ground and he nodded in greeting. I waved to a woman we’d helped just that week with an electrical bill and caught sight of another woman who had recently stopped in for some pastoral care.
And then I looked across the steps and guess who I saw? Stan. He was offering communion to one of the women who often sleeps on our front steps. He caught my eye and smiled as we all stood there in the shadow of the church… not far… not far at all… from the kingdom of God.