Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Listen, I Will Tell You A Mystery--A Sermon on Death and Hamilton

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.

Spoiler alert: everyone dies. We are a culture obsessed with death--the one thing we all have in common, the one thing we cannot control. As Americans, we spend so much of our energy, our time, and our money trying to figure out how to live longer--eat better, exercise more, drive safely, use some age-defying face cream. Some of these tactics are more reasonable than others.

In the United States, in 2016, life expectancy hit a record high. For women, it’s 81 and for men it’s 76. There are a lot of reasons for that difference, mostly to do with occupational hazards. Now, those are averages--we know a handful of people over the age of 81, so obviously it’s not a hard line. But just 100 years ago--in 1916--the average life expectancy was 49. In 1816, it was 34. In just the last 200 years, Americans have more than doubled the length of our lives.

In 2011, a biomedical gerontologist (person who studies old people), claimed that the first person to live to be 150 has already been born. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because this guy, Dr. Aubrey De Grey, also claimed that the first person to live to be 1000 will be born in the next two decades.

What he means by this is that the rate of technological advancement in biomedicine is so great that we will soon be able to prevent every degenerative condition we know of. His ideas of preventive geriatrics do not mean that once we get old and ill we will stay in a haphazard state of old and ill for 1000 years, but rather that he believes we will reach a capacity of “preventing people from getting sick as a result of old age” in the first place. We will soon be able to reach in on the molecular level to solve problems before they spread.

All this because we are afraid of death.

The world we live in is full of images of death. We see constant images of death as headlines pour out of Syria, that another bombing has killed dozens of innocent civilians. We see death every 29 hours, when an unarmed black person is killed by police in the United States. We see death as climate change results in another hurricane sweeping through Haiti, killing everyone in its path. We see death when we log on to Facebook to find a bittersweet Rest in Peace post about a friend’s grandparent. We see death all around us.

And then God comes along and swallows up death forever. God promises that, though we die, we will live. That we will not truly die, for we will be raised. Jesus comes along and says, “I am Resurrection and I am Life!”

This resurrection business is a struggle for all of us. In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we get a clue that they weren’t sold, either. That didn’t bother Paul. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” He writes. 

“We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” Remember, Paul was convinced that the second coming of Christ would be in his lifetime. That the kingdom of God was right there, just over the horizon, just out of their grasp. “Any minute now…” I can hear him saying.

Safiyah Fosua is a professor of spiritual formation at Indiana Wesleyan University, and she wrote about this resurrection skepticism: “The Corinthians were not unique in their struggle to believe in resurrection….[we] continue to have difficulty with both the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and the likelihood that believers in Christ will follow suit. God’s promise of resurrection from death confronts us with yet another promise that we cannot control, predict or understand.” [1] And if there’s anything we 21st-century Americans like, it’s control. We want to lay everything out for our best life, and never encounter anything that thwarts us. Every once in awhile, death thwarts us. Doesn’t it?

From up here, I have a wonderful view of our altar in the back, covered with beautiful photos of your loved ones, and some of mine. Thanks be to God for their lives. Thanks be to God for the ways they loved us, the ways they made our lives more fun and more full. You can tell that some of those pictures are of grandparents and other older folks, of whose lives we witnessed mostly just the end, and whose deaths kind of made sense. But there are a few photos there of young people. Middle-aged people. Those deaths, in particular, thwart us. Those deaths don’t feel right.

That’s why today is one of the best/worst feasts of the Church. Today, we look at those photos of those whom we have loved and we weep. We think about those around us who are in the process of dying, today. We think about the atrocities in the world that call death to the front of our minds without our consent. We think, for a moment, about our own eventual deaths.

I know that, like me, some of y’all are fans of the Tony-Award-Winning Musical Hamilton. It was written by a genius named Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I have been a devotee of his for nearly a decade. If you aren’t familiar, it’s about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States—fairly unusual subject matter for musical theater—and it is completely constructed of hip-hop music—also fairly unusual for musical theater. In the first act, Aaron Burr—the man who eventually kills Hamilton in a duel—sings the most beautiful, poignant song of the show. It’s called “Wait For It.”

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway
we rise and we fall and we break and make our mistakes
and if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died
then I’m willing to wait for it 

Aaron Burr’s life was full of tragic deaths—his parents, his wife, his daughter—but he had faith. He didn’t understand the way the world worked, why he could never quite win. But he had faith. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to identify with an American Revolutionary before, but I bet you have faith. I bet that you don’t always understand why things happen the way they do. I bet you wonder a lot about why bad things happen to good people, and why not-so-good people seem to be getting ahead. I bet you wonder why people you love die, and I bet you’ve asked God to bring them back from the dead.

I am not here to tell you that that is possible. But I am here to tell you that resurrection, transformation, rejuvenation, and new life are possible. “...this promised transformation of the physical body offers hope that other transformations are also possible. The belief that flawed circumstances need not be our permanent estate is an extension of resurrection thinking. Belief in the resurrection conditions us to believe that dead [relationships] have hope, that people once imprisoned by dead works have a future, that imperfect governments and broken economies can be repaired, and that even hurricane-flooded cities or cities buried under the rubble of earthquakes are able to rise again.” [1]

None of those things will happen without work. None of those transformations are possible without faith, without hope, without prayer, without struggle, without justice. It is a mystery, as Paul wrote, how any of this resurrection business actually happens. But the good news of the Gospel, my friends, is that it does. When? We don’t know. How? We don’t know.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

I’m willing to wait for it.

[1] Safiyah Fosua, “Proper 3” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, 261-262.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

God, I Thank You That I am Just Like Other People—A Sermon on Righteousness and Contempt

Grace and peace from God our Creator, Hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.

Sometimes, the Gospel for the week is looking right at us. This week is one of those weeks. The first sentence: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Right there, it’s us he means. It’s a straight up trap, because if you think it’s you, well, you’re right, and if you don’t, well, congratulations, it is. Because either you are the self-righteous who hold others with contempt, or, you’re the self-righteous who hold “the self-righteous who hold others with contempt” with contempt! Long story short, the author of this Gospel is saying, “listen up, y’all. This one’s for you.”

So now that we know this parable is straight up targeting us, what is it? Well, it’s a classic Jesus construction: there’s a Pharisee and a tax collector. Pharisees are regarded as being the most religious, most righteous, best ever dudes. Tax collectors are regarded as basically the opposite. To be a tax collector means that you are shaking down your neighbors for their cash all the time, and running off with it to Caesar, and none of it is every really trickling-down back into your community. So nobody likes you.

You’re probably thinking “well, I don’t want to be the tax collector in this scenario, so, am I the pharisee?" The Pharisee seems okay. He’s at the temple, and he’s praying: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” I am literally the best at being a religious person, thanks for making me so amazing, you’re the best, God. We can hear the problem with this prayer, right? It’s like, so un-self-aware.

So, if we’re this Pharisee, “what are our own versions of this Pharisee’s prayer? Who are we grateful not to be?”[1]

This is so easy.

We are all human, and so we are all very excellent at comparing ourselves to everyone we encounter—for better and for worse—deciding whether we envy that person or would rather die than be that person.

We do this on seemingly unimportant scales all the time, right? Like with our majors; we can’t believe someone could possibly be getting a degree in that. Or with our professional sports affiliations; even if our team loses, at least we didn’t lose as badly as those guys. This year, the very obvious not-even-elephant in the room is the election. “God, I thank you that I am not like those terrible voters for that other party.” Woo—had that thought like 47 times today.

And recently, I had terribly self-righteous thoughts about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. They are the nation’s largest Christian campus ministry organization—there’s a chapter here are UC Davis—and so they are home to many of your peers. A few weeks ago, they made a choice I disagree with. Any of their employees who support marriage equality and other protections for LGBTQ Americans are no longer welcome. They are supposed to notify their supervisors of their disagreement with the organization’s policies on sexuality, and transition out of their jobs next month.

It is part of our work as Christians to speak up about oppressive situations and systems in our midst, and to do our best to end them. It is understandable that these employees probably do not want to work for an organization whose ideals they don’t support, but this also removes entirely the possibility of discussion and compassion and maybe eventual change on the subject. This decision proclaims to all the students on 667 campuses around the country where InterVarsity is present that their pro-LGBTQ stances—and their LGBTQ identities—are not welcome.

I confess to you today, friends, that when I think about this I say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other Christians.” While this, momentarily, makes me feel righteous and excellent, it is not the point. There are plenty of things going on in the ELCA and the Episcopal church that we lament and that we confess and that we must work to change. We are not exempt from bad policies because we are not exempt from sin.

We know, because Martin Luther wrote about it a heck of a lot, that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. This is great, because it means that one wrong move doesn’t ruin everything. The thing about being simultaneously saint and sinner is that we’re always uncomfortable. We’re always giving ourselves a pat on the back, and then feeling like that wasn’t the right move.

Some people don’t like Christians because they think we’re hypocrites. They think that, if we call ourselves Christians, we are all set and do everything perfectly and are never mean and always drive the speed limit and never say a swear word and always volunteer to do the dishes and never buy anything expensive because we’re donating all our money to charity. I think these folks have it upside down. Christians are not perfect—far from it. We know so! At the start of every service, what’s the first thing we do? You can cheat and look at the bulletin. Confession!

We begin our evening together by confessing our sin. We say, to God and to one another, that we have failed. We have messed up. We have done things wrong and we have known they were wrong even as we did them. And we have not done something right and known it was the right thing even as we didn’t do it. We have stood idly by as a situation we had the power to change went on, badly, without our intervention. We know it! And so we say it.

“We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do.”

Every week, we say those words (or some like them). “Confessing our sins as a group helps us know that we are not alone in falling short.” [2]

Part of the power vested in me—mine because I wear this stole, this vestment—by my ordination is the power to declare to you the forgiveness of all your sin. I am not the one who forgives you, that’s not the power I have. God forgives you, and I am entrusted with the responsibility of reminding you.

When I was serving my internship during seminary in Colorado, I had the privilege of getting to know the chaplain at the nearby women’s prison. She told me about the way she mediated conflict between the women, by insisting that as they told their side of the argument with someone, her name had to be followed by “precious child of God” as a reminder of everyone’s belovedness. For example: “I am so tired of listening to Donald Trump, precious child of God, as he insults so many beautiful groups of Americans.” This to say, dear ones, that “we are all created in God’s image,” but “those other people, those people we are secretly glad we are not—they are created in God’s image, too.” [3]

Wherever you find yourself in this parable, wherever you find yourself in the story of God, you are beloved. You, precious child of God, are forgiven. You are justified. You are a sinner and you are a saint. And so is everyone else. God, I thank you that I am just like other people: messy, joyous, awkward, clever, ambitious, righteous, forgetful, silly, beloved. Amen!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Saints and Squirrels—A Sermon for Francis

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

I was reading about St. Francis of Assisi earlier this week, to remind myself about his story—though he’s certainly one of the saints I’m most familiar with, I have to admit that a lot of them run together in my Lutheran brain. Nice men and women who did unusual things in the name of God and then maybe got murdered for it. Those are more the martyrs, but the lives of the saints are often grisly and rugged, since most of them lived several centuries ago.

Saint Francis, for example, lived at the turn of the 13th century, roundabout the Crusades. Francis had a vision of a world in which the afflicted were cared for—leprosy was rampant at the time, and people lived in irrational fear of its contagion and banished lepers from their midst. Francis, the story goes, embraced and kissed a leper before devoting his life to the service of others. He established an order of brothers—Franciscans—to carry out this work.

You may have heard this before—in a St. Francis Day sermon, perhaps—or maybe you’re more familiar with his other charism, blessing of animals and the natural world. He wrote a wonderful little poem that I want to read for you, now:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree and came back holding some acorns, an owl feather, and a ribbon he had found. And I just smiled and said, ‘yes, dear, you understand; everything imparts God’s grace.”[1]

Part of what I love about this poem, of course, is that he just casually chatted with squirrels, and did so often enough to write of them as his friends. Suffice it to say Francis was an unusual man. But what’s deeper than just the sweetness of this love of God’s creatures is the deep theological truth of that last line—everything imparts God’s grace. 

Francis was not complicated or fancy, and for him, neither was God. Everything that surrounds us in our real lives is sacred; we needn’t dress anything up in order for it to be holy—including ourselves. Francis was born into wealth, but he gave everything he had to the poor and lived on just necessities. He advocated for the fair treatment of all living things—humans, animals, plants, you name it—in a time of social upheaval and civil unrest.

Gosh, I wonder if there’s anything we can learn from St. Francis that applies to our own lives and our own society.

We are living in a time of unprecedented climate change. Animals and plants—and humans—around the world are in danger of habitat destruction and extinction because of human industrial activity. We are clear-cutting forests; we are polluting oceans; we are emitting carbon at irreversible rates; the ice caps are melting; hurricanes are wreaking havoc. Human civilizations are ravaged by war and poverty on every continent; healthcare is only available to those who can afford it; children die of preventable diseases every day.

In our modern religious climate, Pope Francis has moved in the direction of his namesake on a number of these issues. While we wouldn’t call a pope progressive under most circumstances, this one has understood the ways in which humans are connected to other forms of life, and encouraged Catholics around the world to consider their participation in global ills.

Saint Francis of Assisi “was an outspoken and controversial social activist. He was one of the greatest preachers of all time. His concern with poverty and ecology give him a strikingly modern [relevance]. He vigorously opposed the abuse of political power, particularly when it was wielded by the [Pope].”[2]

The reason that Francis is a saint, in my sort-of informed opinion, is in how much he modeled his life in the way that Jesus taught. He listened when he heard the words of Jesus we heard in tonight’s Gospel lesson:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Both St. Francis and Jesus lived lives of inclusion, bringing those on the margins into the middle. No matter who you are, there are days when you’d self-identify as weary, and label your burdens as heavy. On those days—and every day—your Christian community welcomes you inside. These words of Jesus remind us that, though we may feel overwhelmed and beyond recovery, there is always someone to whom to hand over our heaviness. You can always turn your garbage over to Jesus. You can always come here and tell a friend or me about what’s up. You can always dump out your giant pile of study material and sort through it with a bad attitude, but a handful of candy from the basket. You can always sit here in this room and sing to your God about the truth of the love you know.

So, come. Come to the table, where all are welcome. For both St. Francis and Jesus—lovers of the earth, radical social activists, carriers of burdens—thanks be to God.

[1] St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems from God

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Stick to the Fundamentals—A Sermon on 'Moses and the Prophets'

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

As you spend more time here at the Belfry, you will see that I do not go anywhere without a certain book. It is leather-bound (fake, vegan leather, don’t worry); it is full of information that guides my daily life; it is full of wisdom for my self-improvement; it is full of history (mine and others’); it is full of scribbles and highlights and post-it notes; I refer to it before I make plans or do anything important. No, dear ones, this book is not the Bible. It is my Passion Planner.

Whether you keep your schedule in your phone, or in your UC Davis academic planner, or scrawled on a napkin and shoved in your pocket, you are probably aware of the benefits of an organized mind.

Every once in awhile, I get really busy with unexpected stuff and I don’t even open my planner for a couple of days. Maybe this does not sound dire to you, but this is dire. I am so to-do-list centered, that when I start several projects without adding their component parts to the list, I run the risk of losing track of them completely. On one of these occasions, I’ll open my planner and see that nothing on the list has been accomplished, and that I’d even forgotten something—having been busy non-stop for days!

The solution to this problem is so easy, it’s almost impossible for me to understand why I don’t just do it the right way every time. I just have to take a deep breath and head back to basics: write down the stuff that needs doing and then do it. Genius, right?

There are plenty of complicated things in our lives that we started out with basics. You take Spanish 101 before Spanish 201; you learn to catch and throw a baseball before you learn to pitch a curveball; you start small with a 5K before training for a marathon; you learned to read at your grade level before moving onto the next.

Our life in faith is the same. Our introduction to the gospel is not likely to be a jaunt through The Complete Works of Martin Luther. That would likely be somehow simultaneously boring and overwhelming at the same time. Too much deep detail too fast, right? You’d skip right past the fundamentals.

When you were in Sunday school, or confirmation, or wherever you were introduced to learning Christianity, you may have started with the Lord’s Prayer or the 10 Commandments or the Apostle’s Creed. In mainline Protestant churches, we often look to these places for the fundamentals of our church. These come out of our scripture directly and from the first few centuries of Christians interpreting our scripture.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking to some Pharisees—religious leaders—long before the word “Christian” entered the fray. From what we read of them, these men are Jewish leaders, teachers, and rule-enforcers, it seems. They're the ones who are always just off-stage, ready to jump in and ask Jesus a “gotcha” question. They’re just trying to do their jobs.

Jesus answers them by telling a story, called a parable, in which there is more to the story than just the literal, face-value. No parable is intended to encapsulate the entire gospel, but each tells a particular piece of the story for the listeners at hand. In today’s parable, a rich man and a poor man (Lazarus) live and die in the same community. Lazarus spends eternity with Abraham, while the rich man is in “agony” in “flames” (v 24).

Through these three characters, we learn that this rich man did not do all he could have—or, perhaps, anything—to help Lazarus or anyone else other than himself in his life. It would be easy—but inaccurate—to say that this is a cause and effect story about the afterlife. The life you live does not dictate your salvation or not, so don’t worry about that. If you’re going to worry about something, worry about what causes us to treat each other the way we do.

In this parable, “Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God’s eternal response to our sin.” [1] Jesus is not warning us about eternal consequences, but present-tense realities that we have the power to change. The rich man is worried about his brothers, and so wants them to be told about his fate so they might not suffer the same. This is my favorite part of the whole story. I can just hear Abraham chuckling, and with maybe even an eye roll or a knowing sigh, saying “they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (v 29).

There’s a rad scholar named Amy-Jill Levine, who I think I’ve preached about before; she’s a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament at a Christian seminary. She knows a lot about Jesus the Rabbi. She wrote a book about parables, and there’s a chapter about this one. I highlighted like the whole thing, but here’s what I think the crux of it is:  “The rich man knows Abraham’s name and Abraham’s role, as he knew the name and the circumstances of the man in anguish by his gates. Knowledge without action will count for nothing. He refused to recognize on earth that Lazarus too was a child of Abraham and so should have been treated as a welcome member of the family. He had the resources; he had the opportunity; he had the commandments of Torah. He did nothing, and he still does nothing.”[2] Oof.

Through this story and the words attributed to Abraham, Jesus is reminding his listeners that they have all the tools they need to build a more just society: the Torah and the prophets. “The problem,” Amy-Jill Levine says, “ is not the message. The problem is that people don’t listen.”[2] If they are truly good people of faith—which they would claim to be, just as we would—they will have learned these fundamentals. It is not that there are more proscriptions to follow, more rules to learn, more admonishments to hear, more commandments or laws. If they would just follow all the ones they already have, they might get somewhere.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus rarely said anything new. He reiterated—often verbatim—Moses and the prophets. Stick to the fundamentals. There are things we can and must do to better our world, on a personal level and on a communal level. The rich man did neither.

And so, “The parable is not simply an indictment of personal behavior; it is an indictment of institutional behavior. It asks us, as the church, to look at the gates we have erected and to consider who lies just on the other side, suffering. Have we listened to ‘Moses and the prophets’?”[3]

There was a system at work in the society that the rich man and Lazarus lived and died in, and there is a system at work in ours.[4]  So what are we to do, then? Stick to our fundamentals. Take stock of our society—our Church, our school, our city, our nation—and notice the ways in which the systems we have built, participated in, benefited from—or been oppressed by—can be changed through the love of God.

Since we live in the United States, we are among some of the wealthiest people to have ever lived. However, we also live in a deeply stratified nation, where income inequality is as wide a chasm as the one between the rich man and Lazarus. The way our society is structured, wealth for a few is made possible only by the poverty of many. [5] This is not a critique of comfort, per se, but of disregard for those who lack. [6] It is not money and wealth intrinsically that are bad, but rather the love of money and of wealth that endangers us.

As we engage with one another in many and diverse ways—in class, at the grocery store, in our romantic relationships, in our families, in our churches, at our protests, in our voting booths—we must be conscious of our interconnectedness. We must not pursue domination or control over one another; we must not pursue wealth and material success at any cost; we must not devalue the lives of our siblings in the family of God. As we have read in the Torah and in the words of Jesus alike, we must love our God and love our neighbor. And like it is written in 1 Timothy, we must “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of...eternal life” (v 11-12).

Stick to the fundamentals.
Stick together.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
[3] Noelle Damico, "Proper 21 [26]" in Preaching God's Transforming Justice
[4] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "Luke" in True to Our Native Land
[5] Clarice J. Martin, "1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus" in True to Our Native Land

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Welcome!—A Sermon on Matthew, Ezekiel, and You

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home! It’s so good to be here with y’all in our little chapel, making a joyful noise once again this year. We’ve just begun to share stories of summer and moving and new classes and already-changed schedules and new roommates and all of the thrills of a new quarter at UC Davis. I’m so excited about all the new-ness, but I’m also excited about the familiarity. I’m so happy to see new faces, and so happy to see returning faces. We have so much great stuff on the calendar for this year, and so much great stuff that will happen that we could never even plan for.

When I sat down at Peet’s coffee to start this sermon—like I do pretty much every time—I opened the lectionary in wonder, thinking, “What will the feast of St. Matthew say to us? What will we consider about welcome and new-ness and excitement?!” And I opened Ezekiel chapter 2 to God convincing a reluctant prophet to tell his people they’re in trouble. Oh, perfect! Nothing like a little lamentation and mourning and woe to kick off a school year!

The reason we’re reading this story today, though, isn’t because of the calamity that Ezekiel was supposed to prophesy. This is the Old Testament reading assigned to the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, whom we celebrate today. Yep, that’s Matthew of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew gets his name from the word mathetes, which is Greek for “disciple.” His is the story of a disciple, just like any other. We don’t think he wrote this Gospel, but we think he contributed to it, and it includes his story, which we read today. We’ll get back to Ezekiel later.

You may have noticed that Matthew is a tax collector. We hear about tax collectors fairly often in Matthew’s gospel for this reason. Not because Jesus wants us to evade our taxes, but because Jesus wants us to take a long hard look at our empire. Because they were representatives of the empire, most folks were not about to cozy up to their neighborhood tax collector and invite them over for dinner.

But Jesus sees him in the tax booth and says “Follow me.” Not in a grand way, not in a “become my disciple” way—at least, not yet—but just, “hey, come here. Sit down for dinner with us, see what we’re about.” Matthew “sat at dinner in the house,” and “many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him” (v 10).

Looking around the table, Matthew absorbs the scene. There are people there who are like him. There are other tax collectors—he won’t even be the only one!—and there are people not usually invited to dine with important people. Jesus has mixed together people who are normally separated from one another, and maybe from everyone else. We know, now, in 2016, that this wasn’t how things were done in those days. Jesus got in a little bit of trouble here and there for welcoming the unwelcome.

Since today was the first day of classes, in the middle of a packed week here at UC Davis, you have probably heard the word “welcome” like 5 bagillion times. If you’re a first-year student, probably like 50 bagillion. I mean, I even made you sing about it.

Have you felt welcome? Have you entered into spaces where you felt comfortable? Where you felt like yourself? Where you felt like maybe a new-ish version of yourself? You, UC Davis edition. I sure hope so. And I especially hope one of those places was here, in our little yellow house.

College is full of incredible opportunities. You’ll learn all sorts of things and meet all sorts of people. You’ll go to class, most of the time; you’ll stay up super late with your roommate talking about the most random stuff; you’ll eat your body weight in pizza; you’ll check out some clubs and organizations; you’ll change your major, probably; you’ll move from place to place on your bicycle—which seems kind of unwieldy right now—and soon be amazed at how easy it is to find your way home.

In the middle of all of that, God will be with you. Here at the Belfry, we’ll be singing and praying and laughing and eating and learning and and questioning and maybe even answering. Maybe the Belfry is the place for you. Maybe not. Maybe you’ve checked your watch six times since I started speaking and you’re wondering if church is even close to what you want to do with your college life. That’s okay. You are welcome here.

You’re welcome here tonight, and you’re welcome here next week; you’re welcome here if you haven’t come back but it’s the end of the quarter and you decide to give it another shot. You’re welcome here when you read about another traumatic act of violence in the world and you need to process it with people of faith. And you’re welcome here when you suddenly realize during spring quarter that it’s Easter and you really want to shout HALLELUJAH with some folks. And you’re welcome here next fall when you try coming back, again. You are welcome here.

Let’s circle back to Ezekiel for a second. The section of the story we read may have felt long, but it was actually just one snippet—there’s more of pretty much the same on either side of the chunk we read. God saying, “Ezekiel, listen to me,” over and over again. Ezekiel doesn’t really have very many lines in this whole thing, but, from context clues, I don’t think God would have repeated Godself quite so hard if Ezekiel had listened the first time.

Luckily for us, God doesn’t mind saying the same thing to us over and over again. Luckily for us, the stories we read in the Bible—like this one, with Matthew—remind us, over and over, that we’re welcome. Luckily for us, we gather at the table together, as a community of reluctant prophets and tax-collectors-turned-disciples and everybody in between.

If that’s not the story you know—if the story you’ve been told is that you don’t deserve to be here, or that you aren’t good enough—well, let me be so privileged to be the first to proclaim that you are. You, whoever you are, are a beloved child of God. Nothing you did and nothing you will do changes the love God has for you. You’re in. We’re in. Everybody’s in. Since we’re in, we’re free. Free to live and love and try and fail and learn and grow and laugh and cry and sin and doubt and wonder and celebrate and leave and return and rest easy in the grace of God.

It’s the first day of school, you’ve got enough on your plate. Rest easy, dear ones. You are welcome here.