Pat Conover: Distinction and Inclusion

Sermon based on Luke Luke 1:1-10, 17-20 
Pat Conover
July 16, 1995

Distinction and Inclusion

The story of the sending out of the 72 is one of four gospel stories in which Jesus gives his disciples instructions for the road. Since Jesus spent time on the road himself it is likely that he said some things to give guidance for such itinerant ministry. But the story in its current form is likely to have a lot more to do with the circumstances of such itinerant ministry in the early church. Certainly the details of the directions in this second version of the story in Luke are not the same as found in the first Lukan story or the stories of Mark, Q and Thomas.

These distinctions help us remember that the early development and spread of Christianity was neither a centralized or carefully planned process. There was no mission statements, clarified goals, operationalized strategies, or measurable objectives. People with vision and hope were sharing themselves and working things out as they went. I find this realization kind of hope giving as Seekers moves into a series of transitions.

Perhaps the most radical instruction in this story is for the disciples to eat whatever is put before them. There is more at stake here than good manners and good nutrition. In keeping with other assaults by Jesus on the purity codes of Judaism, Jesus is telling his disciples not to worry about keeping the rules of Kosher eating. On the one hand this is a rule of inclusion. It fits well with Luke’s emphasis on extending the ministry to Gentiles and isn’t found in Mark who was concerned with arguing that Christianity was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. But, as a rule of inclusion it is also a mark of distinction. To include the gentiles was to draw away from the Judaism of the Pharisees. It was a terrific challenge to the early church to figure out how it was both a continuation of Judaism, with the Pentateuch as scripture, and also how it was a new religion with a fresh source of inspiration. Seekers is similarly figuring out how it is both a continuation of Christianity as it is so diversely encountered in our culture in this day and time, and how we are a distinctive manifestation of Christianity drawing from some of the roots of the Church of the Savior as well as our own experiences which seems to have marks of the Spirit about them.

We are a community that has emphasized inclusion:

  • children and elderly
  • leadership by men and women
  • welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderal people
  • welcoming across lines of class, race and ethnicity
  • respect and welcome for people who come from diverse religious backgrounds

But the welcoming of such diversity also brings two key problems.

  1. People who are strongly committed to the distinctiveness of their personal faith roots may find much to offend them here. If you regard written liturgies as a sign of class elitism you will be unhappy in Seekers. If you regard the inventiveness of our liturgical style as disorienting, inconsistent and disrespectful of traditions you will probably be unhappy here. Some find Seekers too focused on Jesus and others would like us to be much more focused on Jesus.
  2. The second problem is that in a desire to be inclusive it can be easy to downplay some of our distinctiveness. For example, we favor inclusive language but have not been quite ready to give up the traditional language of the Lord’s prayer. We have so much diversity of certain kinds that it can feel hard to take any initiative because it is likely that no matter what we do some Seeker will probably not like it. You have to welcome a certain amount of conflict as a natural process to be fully at home in Seekers.

The second bit of the story which captured my attention was the directive to take no purse or pack and to travel barefooted. The story in the 9th chapter of Luke also forbids taking a staff. These are commands to be vulnerable and dependent and they are certainly a challenge to us as we contemplate the challenge to acquire this building or some other so that we may have a home.

But, I confess it is a bit of arcane scholarship that sparked my interest. Greek Cynics of the day were also itinerant preachers. They were also directed to go forth barefooted but were allowed to take cloak, wallet and staff. Similarly there were itinerant preachers who were Pharisees or followers of John the Baptist. Being an itinerant preacher, no matter how courageous the undertaking, was not distinctive. So Luke gives direction that highlight the vulnerability and dependence of those going out as disciples of Jesus. They join the barefooted preachers and healers of their day but are allowed no wallet or staff, that is, no money and no weapon.

Since there has been so much emphasis on inclusion I want to spend the rest of this sermon considering the desirable distinctiveness of Seekers. I hope most Seekers twitch when an announcer on Public Radio thoughtlessly says in response to the current heat wave, "Aren’t we glad that we live in the age of air conditioning." Part of those I feel "we-ness" with do not have air-conditioning. Some may need to give up their air-conditioning to feel solidarity with the poor. But I believe Jesus would prefer us to devote a substantial part of our caring and resources to changing our society so that one need suffer from this heat and suffer additionally from alienation because they live in such an uncaring society. Whether it is air-conditioning or any of the thousands of other concerns that Seekers bear, I hope we will continue to be distinctive in the seriousness and depth of our caring. As far as I am concerned it is an absolutely fundamental part of our membership standard that each person must take on a calling to ministry and be accountable for it in a small group. I’m very attracted to the Seekers slogan that this is a ship which has room only for crew and not for passengers. This is a working ship. There’s plenty of time to learn the ropes. There is time to rest when it is not your watch. There is time for the crew to play. People can visit when we have pulled into port or volunteer for a single trip. But it is important to remember that while we welcome people with all kinds of callings and all kinds of gifts, we know we need crew. It is not just enough to be vulnerable and to care. To switch back to the Luke story, we have to find a partner and hit the road.

This is not an easy standard to bear. We are inclusive in our welcoming and no one likes to be the one to defend our standards in real live situations. We count a lot on people figuring things out for themselves and being self-selective. Still some of us remember well loved people who discovered our "all crew" standard and left.

Our other core standard is around the inner spiritual journey. In fact, when we say "disciplines" most people who have been around awhile here "inner journey disciplines." They are critical for themselves but they are also critical in the way they shape our common life. For one thing, they make us peers. No member of Seekers has a special spiritual position. On the other hand I think it matters that no one is part of the formal core decision making whois not accountable for ongoing attention to their inner spiritual life. We will likely continue to wrestle with the details of inner journey standards, but in drawing a line at this point we help to distinguish Seekers as a way to contribute to the unfolding Christian story.

This standard is no easier to bear than the standards of calling and ministry. We have lost people from membership and lost people from the larger community because of this standard. At our best, we welcome everyone with whatever faith and understanding they bring along. But, wherever you are coming from, we are welcoming you to a community that expects honest conversation and serious personal reflection about the things that really matter.

It is because of our caring and vulnerability that the quality of our community life matters so much. Personal transformation isn’t easy. The challenge to live out one’s God given calling to ministry is not easy. Both of our core standards separate us from our society and culture as surely as Luke’s guidance for the road did in his day. We find ourselves in tension with our parents and children, recognized opinion leaders, with swimming pool boards and professional standards, or definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. We need a place where serious Christian engagement makes sense or we will end up feeling crazy.

What I have found in Seekers, what I am part of in Seekers is precious to me. Whether you are just discovering Seekers or one of the founders who helped to create this place for me to come to, you matter to me. My callings have not been easy and my ongoing personal transformation has hardly been smooth. Any who welcome me and will journey with me, matter to me.

But a vision that is both inclusive and distinctive is not enough. Hear now a different kind of word given to the early church by Paul in his letter to the Colossians.

May you be strengthened by God’s glorious might and be given ample power to meet whatever comes your way with fortitude, patience and joy.

We have been given so much. There are so many among us with spiritual depth, so many among us with guidance for callings and ministry. We are so financially wealthy. We are so well connected. We have such powerful, graceful and varied capacities.

I say to you that to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Let the caring flow. Let the money flow. Let the power flow. Let us be as risking and vulnerable in this day and time as those ill-prepared itinerant ministers who hit the dusty roads of their day. If your calling or inner journey is to wait, then wait abundantly and with hope. If you are burdened by shame or timidity or arrogance, then expose yourself to healing. If you are preparing, then do it with a full heart and deep questions. If you have some things to straighten out so that you are ready to fully engage Seekers then do what you need to do and come and put your weight down here. If here is not the right place for you move on and know that our caring goes with you. If it is a time of diminishment for you don’t forget to do what you can and to be all that you are. And for goodness sake, if this can be a time to move into full activity with a mission group or into full membership, please step forward.

Seekers is a place of great power but that power is not yet fully released. Too often we find ourselves risking only at the fairly safe points, fitting our Christian callings into busy schedules, giving financially only from our disposable incomes. But until we break such boundaries in our inner and outer journeys we will only see what we are already able to see, feel what we are already able to feel. God needs more room than our common life assumptions allow. God wants more ministry from us than we can carry with the power we already know we have.

In the Luke story, the disciples are not only sent out. They also return to Jesus and to each other. If we let God’s power flow in our personal and common lives we will go to strange places and act beyond what we knew we could do. And when we return we have the promise that we will find each other with deeper passion and joy than we have yet experienced.

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