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The Way of Inclusion

Tax collectors and sinners! He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1-3)! The Pharisees were definitely not pleased. More was expected from a so-called rabbi. Like knowing who was ok to associate with and who wasn’t, who was “clean” and who wasn’t, who was righteous and who wasn’t. This was one more black mark against Jesus.

But their way wasn't his way. His way was radical inclusion. All y’all come, sit down, let’s break bread, let’s talk. I’m sure they didn’t always agree, but he clearly wasn’t lambasting them for poor behavior, or you’d think they’d stop coming. No, he actually cared about them, was kind and helpful, was compassionate and loving. That is what was most radical about his way of inclusion.

Sadly, the church as it evolved over the years didn’t get the message. Perhaps the earliest gatherings of Jesus followers lived his way of inclusion. But as time went by, the church became an exclusive club, more worried about assimilating than including.

I hate to even think of all the people the church has excluded over the centuries, and in some cases the violent way they were excluded. All we have to do is remember the Inquisition, an office of the Catholic Church designed to protect it against heresy. Jews, Muslims, “witches,” and other non-orthodox Christian sects were all under persecution. Then there was the Catholic/Protestant issue, women who couldn’t be ministers, blacks who were banned to balconies, LGBTQ folks, divorced folks, and children born out of wedlock. I'm sure there are more.

These are the obvious exclusions. What is trickier are the implied, or less overt exclusions like the location of a church, accessibility, the order of worship and language used in the service, an restrictions to receiving the sacraments. Some of these, like location, are somewhat unavoidable. Others need to be addressed for a church community to practice radical inclusion.

The even harder part of this practice of inclusion is to take it into our personal lives as people who try to live the way of Jesus and the way of inclusion on a daily basis. It’s one thing to be nice to everyone at church, it’s another to be nice to everyone in our daily lives… though it shouldn’t be. We are compartmentalizing our lives when we are one way in one setting, and other way in another setting. There is no spiritual integrity in that (to use language from my first Lenten message)… it is not true to our deepest, most beautiful spiritual selves, or the deepest, most beautiful spiritual selves in others.

The Pharisees were appalled by the tax collectors and sinners, but who would we be appalled by today? If we invited Jesus to dinner and he brought along some friends who made us horribly uncomfortable, who would they be? Who do you absolutely NOT want to see at your kitchen table? Why? Because those are the people Jesus wants to bring. Those are the people who require us to do some serious self-reflection.

So, let me share story that I’m not particularly proud of… when Julie and I were in Cozumel last month, we were sitting on the beach one day next to a middle-aged couple from Texas. Julie was chit-chatting with them since they were on the other side of her when the husband starts in on those Mexicans and all the trouble they are causing along the border, how the news is lying about how hard their journey is and all they do is get on a bus, but the news just shows them getting off the bus, how it can’t be hard because they show women in flip-flops walking with their kids… and so on. I didn’t last long before jumping in and asking if he’d actually talked to any of those people personally. I shared that we had just been helping an asylum seeker from Venezuela at our church who told us his story and it wasn’t easy, he was fleeing for his life…

Well, it only took a few minutes before I could see that this conversation was going to go nowhere and all it was really doing was raising my blood pressure. I finally just ended it by saying I didn’t want to be discussing politics on vacation. But I’m not really happy with how I handled the conversation. I could have tried to use it as a learning experience, instead I allowed myself to get defensive and upset and then just gave up. Jesus would’ve done better.

We all have personal biases that we need to acknowledge, understand and work on. When I’ve taken groups on ASP (Appalachia Service Project) the line we hear over and over is that we need to accept people right where they are, as they are. It is not ours to judge if their house is falling down and they have a 60-inch flat screen color television in the living room. It is not ours to judge if they never set foot out of the run-down trailer home they live in. It’s not ours to judge if there is a 6-foot high pile of garbage outside their back door. It’s not ours to judge if there are rat traps in the kitchen and the kid’s bedroom. We were there to develop relationships, to be kindness and love, and to help make their homes warmer, safer and drier.

No, inclusion isn't always easy. But my spiritual path calls me to try. I didn’t do well in the moment in Cozumel, but I’ve thought about it ever since, and I will try to learn from it and do better next time, because the divine spark is in EVERYONE. Some days I’m better at this than others, but I’m working on being self-aware, compassionate and inclusive.

Last year four 13-16-year-olds in Washington County were working with two adult art therapists from FRIENDS, Inc. and NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) to create a piece of art. Ultimately these young artists conceived and painted a 4-by-24-foot mural that represented themselves with the purpose of, through their art, sharing who they are with their community. One of the Washington County libraries approved the concept of what they were doing and promised to display their art when completed.

Sadly, once the mural was completed - a beautiful line of children of all colors against a background of stars and planets with the words "We Are Equal" repeated - the offer to display was rescinded. I can't imagine how devastating that would be to four teenagers who poured their heart and soul into their art, who allowed themselves to be vulnerable, just to be rejected again.

One of the adult art advisers contacted Penzey's Spices, with the hope that they could do something to help the art of these young people be seen. So, instead of on a back wall of a library in a small county, for these last few months this amazing piece has been on display at the heart of Downtown Milwaukee right there on Wisconsin and Water Streets.

What is perhaps even more amazing than their art, however, is their artists’ statement which I reprint here for you:

Artist Statement

How powerful would it feel to not feel alone?

To be included and to be accepted as you are.  
To be accepted fully and wholly by friends, by family, by peers, and by society.
As you are, versus who some of them want you to be.  
To be seen as you. As the incredible, resilient human you are.

How powerful would it be to not be silenced?
To be heard. To be celebrated.  
To not be minimized or hushed.  
Our voices deserve to be heard and shared.  
To be celebrated and amplified.

People are in a relationship with people.
Whether a friend, a significant other, a family, a colleague  
A relationship is strong when you’re heard and valued.  
When you are valued as a whole person and you build each other up.
When you have mutual respect and acknowledge each other’s strengths and areas for growth.
And when you embrace our differences and recognize our similarities  
We are able to grow as individuals and in humanity

We want you to know that it is okay to expand your mind and to change your perspective.  
To hold yourself accountable and to admit when you were ignorant or wrong  
It is a wonderful thing to allow yourself to grow and to notice progress and the evolution of thought.

We are happier and healthier when we are together and when we are heard.  
Not only when we are heard, but when we amplify others’ voices who deserve to be celebrated

We hope you acknowledge that we have pride in us,
That we have pride in others,
and that Pride is more than one month a year.

We hope you feel love, happiness, and courage.

We hope you know how powerful it is to not feel alone.

This is the way of inclusion.

Love & Light!