June 10, 2018

The Outsiders: The Worthy

Luke 7:1-10

-Carla Wilks

Over the next several weeks we will be exploring some of the stories in the Gospel of Luke. This section of the Gospel of Luke takes a look at Jesus’ ministry with those on the so-called “outside.” In his ministry we hear about how Jesus invites those on the outside to the inside. He welcomes into his circle those who were not normally included.

This “Outsiders” series each week will focus on a different group of people who were welcomed in or upheld by Jesus as he was preaching and teaching and healing throughout the region.

For this first Sunday, the focus is “the Worthy.” Who is worthy of the love—of the grace—of God? Too often people in or out of the church live with the belief, “I am not worthy.” They may be referring to their absence of faith, their life choices, or have even started to believe what “society” has declared about their identity. This week Jesus proclaims that what makes us worthy is not whether we are “in” or “out.”
In this passage in Luke, a Roman Centurion, an officer in the Roman Army, and certainly not someone on the inside track to be a recipient of Jesus’ ministry, sends word to Jesus to ask that his valued slave be healed. The Centurion then recognizes and acknowledges Jesus’ authority which he has from God. Just as the centurion is given authority from above to command those under him, he recognizes that Jesus has an authority from God that he can use and call upon just by saying the word. Jesus is surprised by this enemy soldier showing such faith, so he determines him to be worthy and heals the slave.
As the church, we are called to affirm the worth of all people.

Today we celebrate the 93rd anniversary of the United Church of Canada. When its first service was held, on June 10, 1925, it was after many many years of work. Back when some of the colonies joined to form the entity named Canada, there was a feeling of unity across the land. In anticipation of the union of the colonies, many of the churches joined the spirit of unity and the desire for collaboration and formed union churches, especially on the prairies.
The conversations about union continued between the major Protestant denominations, the Congregationalists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians but as sometimes happens in the church, the conversations took a while… and then the war happened, and those conversations were put on hold. So finally, in 1925, the United Church was formed out of the already existing Union churches, the Methodists, the Congregationalists and about 2/3 of the Presbyterian churches. It continues to be a uniting church, with the addition of several other congregations and also the Evangelical United Brethren church in 1968. The United Church of Canada was the first union of churches in the world to cross those historical denominational lines.

The United Church is both admired and criticized for expanding society’s definition of who was worthy. As a church we began doing that very early on. In most denominations, women could not be ministers. But the United Church deemed women worthy to be in ministry, and the first woman was ordained in 1936, just 11 years after the church was formed, Rev Lydia Gruchy. For comparison’s sake – it was 1966 that women were first ordained in the Presbyterian church and 1976 in the Anglican church.

The United Church has also advocated over the years that worth was not determined by or limited by sexual orientation, in terms of ordination, spousal rights, human rights and marriage. Over the years the church made presentations to and petitioned the government in support of the inclusion and openness.

From its birth, the United Church has had to accommodate a diversity of theological beliefs. It has had a history of tackling publicly the really tough social issues. The United Church’s courage, openness, and inclusiveness sets us apart. Less courageous liberal and mainline denominations often follow where the United Church has led.

The United Church is often criticized for not adhering to a strict set of rules of belief, which to some, looks like we don’t believe anything, or we are seen as “wishy washy.” While some Christian churches have their beliefs set out for them in a tidy box, we understand that we can’t put our faith into a tidy box with very clear edges and boundaries. In the United Church there is openness for those edges to be a little bit fluid, allowing for differences in experience and expression. But while those edges are fluid, what lies at our core, how we define our centre, remains the same. Jesus ministry and teachings are at the centre. How that gets expressed specifically through our beliefs about particular doctrines of the church, or in describing our faith may be different, but our centre comes down to following the way of Jesus.

This week I was reading some comments of people who were asked how they would celebrate the anniversary of the United Church.
A few of the comments that summed up many of the comments I read, were about precisely this. One woman said: “It is my home where I am respected and cared about. My church accepts me as I am and celebrates the part I take in it. It does the same for all people who come to it. We are not only inclusive, we celebrate all our differences. We try to bring the light of God into all our lives and our community.” Another said “I celebrate the UCC’s affirmation of diversity, its encouragement of us, as members, to ask the questions, to not insist we blindly believe a set of rules, our distinct Canadian-ness. Due to our public witness, we have made a difference in our nation’s history.” Another said “I am always proud to say I am a member of United Church of Canada because you are my community that is willing to stand up for justice and inclusion, even if it stands alone.” One person is “Celebrating our attention to equity in decision-making. Not perfect but heartfelt.” Also “We celebrate learning to understand and live RADICAL WELCOME! We haven’t got it right yet, but we know we need to work toward it.”

In the life of Jesus that we see through the Gospel stories, we see that his life and ministry was dedicated to welcoming those who were not normally seen as worthy by society, those outcast by society, the people on the edges. In today’s story in Luke, it is a Roman soldier – seen typically as the enemy, who is let in by Jesus, welcomed and seen as worthy.

As Christians and as the church, we are called to live out this welcome as well. How will we welcome the worthy and tear down the division between inside and out? Our work in the church is certainly not done. There are still people on the margins whose voices need to be upheld. We can’t get too comfortable. As Jesus did, we need to keep watch for those on the outside whose voices are regularly diminished, that they be heard and valued and know their worth.

Are there people in your life who are feeling like they are on the outside and who may benefit from being reminded that they are worthy of God’s love and are welcome here? Have there been times when you yourself have felt like you were not worthy or that part of you needed to remain hidden in order to be loved by God or by others? We see through Jesus’ life that God’s love is bigger than that. We are welcome, we are worthy, we are loved. Thanks be to God!